How is Syphilis Caused?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It can be transmitted through sexual contact with an infected person and can also be passed from mother to child during pregnancy or childbirth. Here’s how syphilis is caused and transmitted:

  • Sexual Transmission: Syphilis is most commonly spread through sexual activity, including vaginal, anal, or oral sex, with someone who has an active syphilis infection. The infection can be transmitted through direct contact with syphilis sores or rashes on the genitals, anus, mouth, or lips. Even when symptoms are not present, the infection can still be transmitted if the person is in the early stages of syphilis.
  • Mother-to-Child Transmission: Pregnant women with syphilis can transmit the infection to their unborn baby during pregnancy, which is known as congenital syphilis. This transmission can result in serious health problems or even death for the infant. Screening and treatment of pregnant women for syphilis are essential to prevent congenital syphilis.
  • Blood Transmission (Rare): While rare, syphilis can also be transmitted through blood transfusions or by sharing needles or syringes contaminated with the blood of an infected person. This is more common in areas with a high prevalence of syphilis and in individuals who engage in high-risk behaviors, such as injecting drugs.

Syphilis has several stages, including primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary stages. Symptoms can vary depending on the stage of the infection:

  • Primary Syphilis: The first symptom is usually a painless sore or ulcer called a chancre that appears at the site of infection (e.g., genitals, mouth, anus). The sore can go unnoticed, but it is highly infectious. It typically heals within a few weeks, even without treatment.
  • Secondary Syphilis: If left untreated, the infection progresses to the secondary stage, which can include a variety of symptoms such as skin rashes, mucous membrane lesions, fever, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes. These symptoms may come and go over several months.
  • Latent Syphilis: After the secondary stage, syphilis can enter a latent stage where there are no apparent symptoms, but the bacterium remains in the body. Latent syphilis can last for years.
  • Tertiary Syphilis: In some cases, untreated syphilis can progress to the tertiary stage, which can involve severe damage to various organs, including the heart, brain, nerves, eyes, and blood vessels. Tertiary syphilis can be life-threatening and cause serious complications.

Syphilis can be effectively treated with antibiotics, particularly penicillin, at any stage of the infection. Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to prevent the progression of the disease and its complications. Regular STI testing and safe sexual practices, such as using condoms, are important for preventing syphilis and other STIs. Pregnant women should be screened for syphilis to prevent congenital transmission to their infants.