Syphilis is caused by a corkscrew-shaped bacterium known as a spirochete.Its scientific name is Treponema pallidium.The bacteria moves by twisting.and can only survive for a short time outside the body.
The disease is mainly transmitted sexually, usually among people with multiple sexual partners.The disease can also be transmitted from mother to unborn child, resulting in congenital syphilis. The bacteria, being blood-borne can also be transmitted by intravenous drug use and drug transfusion.
Syphilis is a complex disease, with many stages.The symptoms are divided in stages as below.
Primary syphilis- After the bacteria enters the body through the mucosal tissues,they multiply at the site of entry and soon spreads throughout the body through the lymph system.In a period ranging from 10-30 days, a small lesion called chancre appears on the entry site.A chancre is a shallow ulcer which causes relatively no pain.The chancre soon disappears but after 2-6 weeks, secondary syphilis appears.
Secondary syphilis- The bacteria that spread from the entry site are deposited in tissues and multiply slowly.Lesions and rashes appear throughout the body.These contains large amounts of bacterium and are highly infectious.Headache,fever,sore throat may be experienced.The symptoms gradually subsides, but in some people, may reappear as tertiary syphilis years later.
Tertiary syphilis- Tertiary syphilis follows after about 3 to 30 years from secondary syphilis.However,in AIDS patients, the tertiary stage may develop within a few months.Large patches of lesion called gummas occur.The bacteria may not be present at all. This is due to an adverse immune reaction to the bacteria.Insanity may result due to lesions in the nervous system, known as neurosyphilis.The heart may be involved too, resulting in heart disease.
Congenital syphilis- The bacteria can cross through the placenta to an unborn baby from his mother, resulting in congenital syphilis.The infants born may have congenital defects or show symptoms at a later time.The infant may have skin lesion,enlarged spleen,anemia,pneumonia,mental retardation,deformed bones and teeth and damage to the eyes.
Penicillin is effective in treating syphilis. In patients who are allergic to penicillin, tetracyclines or erythromycin may be used.For primary and secondary syphilis, antibiotic therapy for 7-10 days can treat the disease sucessfully.For the tertiary stage,treatment must be maintained for over 21 days.
The prevention of syphilis is mainly the same as with the other sexually-transmitted diseases.The use of condoms will prevent transmission.Keep to one sexual partner.Follow-up with the sexual partners of the patient can help prevent the spread of syphilis.
Syphilis is known as the great pox in the past to distinguish it from smallpox which also produces lesions.The word syphilis" actually comes from a name of a shepherd in a Latin poem who got this disease.Syphilis can also mimic other diseases, hence its another name is "the Great Masquader"."syph", "lues" and "bad blood" are its other names.The causative agent,Treponema pallidium was discovered by Fritz R. Schaudinn and Erich Hoffmanin 1905.