Syphilis is a bacterial infection that infects the penis, throat or anus and then spreads to different parts of the body through the bloodstream.
If left untreated, syphilis can cause damage to the nerves, bones, skin, eyes and brain.
Syphilis has infectious and non-infectious stages.
Syphilis can produce a painless sore on the penis, in the anus or in the mouth ten to ninety days after infection. The sore usually turns into a scab and heals after two to six weeks, but the infection remains. Only areas covered by condoms, gloves or dental dams are protected from infection.
Seven to ten weeks after infection, some people develop a rash on the torso (body), hands or feet. Symptoms may also include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, muscle aches and fatigue. The symptoms may last up to a few months and then disappear.
If left untreated, syphilis remains in the body. It stops being infectious to sexual partners after about two years. During the non-infectious stage syphilis may begin to damage the body’s internal organs, which may include the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, liver, heart, bones, joints and blood vessels. In some people this damage may not show up for many years. Damage to the internal organs can occur after ten to twenty-five years and may be serious enough to cause death.
If a sore (called a chancre) is present, a swab can be used to test. However, the usual test for syphilis is a blood test. It can take up to three months after exposure for the infection to show up in a blood test. Once someone has been infected with syphilis most future blood tests will show up as positive – even if they have been successfully treated. A particular test is used to identify a new infection – as well as to see if treatment has worked.
Syphilis is treated with injections of antibiotics. The duration of treatment depends on the stage of the infection and ranges from between one and thirty days. Treatment is often provided if you have had contact with someone who has had syphilis to prevent it from developing in you.
Syphilis is harder to detect and harder to treat in people with HIV. It is a serious infection that can be mistaken for other infections found in people living with HIV. While the symptoms of syphilis are usually similar, some HIV positive men develop severe organ and nerve damage much more rapidly than HIV negative men. For some, syphilis can decrease the CD4 count. This can cause damage to the immune system as well as increase the viral load.
Having syphilis increases the risk of HIV transmission.
Avoid contact with any sores or rashes. Using condoms will provide the best protection, but there is still a risk of infection in areas not covered by the condom.