Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium treponema pallidum. After being nearly eradicated in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that rates of syphilis infection have been on the rise.
Syphilis can be transmitted through vaginal, anal or oral sex, as well as contact with an open sore or contact with a skin rash. The bacteria can enter the body through the penis, anus, vagina, mouth or through broken skin. Syphilis is not spread by contact with toilet seats, doorknobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, bathtubs, shared clothing or eating utensils.
An infected pregnant woman can pass the disease onto her unborn child during pregnancy. Depending on how long a pregnant woman has been infected, she might have a high risk of having a stillbirth, and there is an increased rate of infant mortality shortly after birth. An infected baby may be born without signs or symptoms of the disease; however, if not treated immediately, the baby might develop serious health problems within a few weeks. Untreated babies might become developmentally delayed, suffer seizures or die.
The disease progresses in four different stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. Signs of the primary stage usually show around three weeks after exposure, where one or more painless sores, called shankers, appear in the genital region. The secondary stage typically develops four to 10 weeks later, where a rash forms on the hands, often accompanied with generic symptoms like fever, sore throat, weakness, or even weight loss.
The third stage is perhaps the most dangerous, because the symptoms vanish and the disease essentially goes into hiding within the body's cells. During this period, people might think that since there are no more symptoms, they do not have an STD, and risk passing syphilis onto someone else. If left untreated, the disease will reach the tertiary or late stage. At this point, the progression of syphilis in the body will severely damage vital organs, and can lead to blindness and even mental problems by destroying the central nervous system.
Penicillin can treat the early stages of syphilis, but antibiotics can't reverse damage caused by late-stage syphilis.
The best offense against syphilis or any STD is a strong defense. If you are sexually active, practice safe sex and use condoms. If you've had unprotected intercourse, get screened.