What is Syphilis?
Syphilis is a bacterial disease that is almost exclusively spread through sexual contact (although there are a few minor exceptions to this). It is among one of the most well-known forms of venereal disease, although it is not the most widespread. Most of the cases of syphilis arise in parts of the world that have not developed economically, where proper medical care and information is not as common as it is in the west.
Syphilis is known for its broad variety of symptoms, which generally deploy themselves in a tiered capacity over time. The first symptoms to set in are generally skin-related. Syphilis may fall into dormancy without symptoms.
Who gets Syphilis?
Syphilis afflicts two primary categories of individuals: newborns and those that practice unsafe sex. The two groups seem quite disparate, and they are; the latter suffer due to the venereal spread of syphilis, and the former suffer when their mothers suffer from syphilis, resulting in what is known as ‘congenital syphilis’. Syphilis has a tendency to vary in symptomatic nature depending upon the origin of the infection, and may also vary in severity based on the same criteria.
Individuals of different ethnic backgrounds are not significantly more vulnerable than individuals of other ethnic backgrounds. Similarly, men are not more or less vulnerable than women. Age factors in for vulnerability only insofar as it does for all ailments, regardless of their nature; the very young and very old are always more vulnerable the farther they are toward the extremes on the age spectrum.
Homosexual individuals are more likely to suffer from syphilis than heterosexuals, but this is purely statistical. There is no correlation between homosexuality and vulnerability to syphilis, but rather a correlation between homosexuality and unsafe sex. This statistic has diminished reasonably in recent years due to an increase in education with respect to the importance of safe sex, especially the use of condoms (many are of the mistaken opinion that safe sex is only about contraception, which is not the case).
What causes Syphilis?
Syphilis is caused by a bacterial infection that is most commonly shared through unprotected sex. It is also possible for syphilis to be congenital, that is, present in a newborn from birth. The nature of the symptoms change over time, making length of infection a relevant causal factor, with the ailment’s symptoms coming in stages.
What does Syphilis cause?
Syphilis can cause a host of symptoms depending upon what stage it has progressed to. There are four main stages to syphilis infection. The second is worse than the first, the third is a phase of dormancy, and the fourth is the heading of the worst symptoms syphilis can muster.
The first stage of syphilis involves nothing more than a very simple sore, usually no more than one, called a ‘chancre’. Chancres are unique to syphilis infections. While most ulcerations of the skin are quite painful and prone to bleeding, chancres are distinct for being painless. They are generally very small, no more than a few centimeters across, and do not exude pus or anything else. Aside from their very visible nature they are frequently easy to overlook. Chancres are troublesome because they do not appear for quite some time after syphilis infection has occurred, usually manifesting some 21 days after infection. This gives sexually active individuals who do not practice safe sex more than enough time to spread the bacteria even farther before they are even aware they are carrying any kind of infection. Chancres generally persist for three two six weeks after appearing unless they are treated. The first stage of syphilis is called ‘Primary Syphilis’.
The second stage of syphilis is somewhat varied. The second stage of syphilis is also known as ‘Secondary Syphilis’. Secondary syphilis can extend to several different systems of the body and is altogether far less pleasant and far less forgiving than primary syphilis, which is quite tame relatively.
Secondary syphilis most frequently manifests in the form of a pustular rash that covers most of the torso and extends to the extremities of the hands and feet. The palms and soles are also quite vulnerable. It is less likely to be as densely revealed on the limbs, but it may still manifest there. This rash may come in the form of a pustular mess somewhat resembling a severe acne outbreak. This is not to say that it is an acne outbreak or is related to acne, but simply that it looks very much like it (acne treatments won’t have any effect on it). It may also come in a much flatter rash with very few raised bumps. In either case, it will not itch or hurt.
In the mouth, nose and the mucous membranes, wart-like protrusions may form in the skin. These are, in contrast to the rash that may form, frequently very painful and disruptive.
Both the rash and warts are infectious. Regardless of how the rash should manifest, be it flat or with pustules, the raised portions of the skin contain highly infectious bacteria, and transmission is very likely if anyone infected should engage in unprotected sex (and sex with protection still carries a significant risk of infection). This is the stage during which most cases of syphilis are communicated, not including its phase before initial symptomatic presentation.
There are a list of other symptoms that may accompany second-stage syphilis which make it so potentially varied. It may manifest with a fever in response to your immune system’s attempt to fight the bacteria off. Malaise is a possibility, much like what is experienced in a case of the flu, along with joint aches. Sore throat is another possibility, especially accompanying the warts of the mucous membrane. Hair and weight loss are made possible by the damage syphilis bacteria does to the body during this stage, as well.
Very rarely, it is possible for syphilis to cause a number of other far worse symptoms. These include arthritis and forms of kidney disease. This is thankfully fairly rare. Usually, these manifestations of syphilis accompany other ailments.
Secondary syphilis lasts three to six weeks on average, although exceptions may always occur. This statistic assumes no treatment is brought to bear against it.
Latent syphilis is the third stage of the disease. Syphilis tends to fall latent after secondary syphilis burns itself out. This is considered an early stage if it occurs less than a year before secondary syphilis, and late if it occurs longer than a year after. Generally, latent syphilis is still infectious, but is not infectious to the same degree. Unprotected sex while syphilis is in its latent stage is still a bad idea, and it is still a bad idea moreso than unprotected sex is always a bad idea. Various symptoms may occur as a form of relapse during this latent stage. They will generally be isolated individual symptoms, and more manageable than the full bore of secondary syphilis. These may come and go over the course of a week. Otherwise, latent syphilis is asymptomatic and roughly easy to shrug off.
Tertiary syphilis is far and away the worst form of syphilis. It comes in three primary forms, none of which are pleasant, all of which may be concurrent. They may manifest themselves at different times, but they are all considered tertiary syphilitic conditions.
Gummatous syphilis is a form of syphilis infection that results in what are called ‘gummas’. Gummas are similar to tumors, but are made of soft tissue and are benign; they are not cancerous in origin, but are rather pockets of inflammation. However, gummatous syphilis prompts their formation on a constant basis, making gummatous syphilis a chronic condition. They may form on the skin, including the face, as well as on the bones and various organs.
Late neurosyphilis is another possibility. It is also possibly asymptomatic. If symptoms do present, it will be because the syphilis infection has spread in such a way as to cause syphilitic meningitis, a syphilitic infection of the spinal cord. It may also cause paralysis and permanent loss of sensation. This is perhaps one of the most infamous potential fates for individuals that suffer from syphilis.
Cardiovascular syphilis is the final possibility and the most easily downplayed. Cardiovascular syphilis may result in various forms of inflammation that can cause aneurysms as an advanced complication.
Tertiary syphilis generally comes to the fore around a decade after the initial infection. This may be somewhat sooner, but it is more likely to be later, and it is entirely possible for tertiary syphilis to have no effect until five or more decades after the initial syphilis infection.
Congenital syphilis carries variations of most of the symptoms. Most children born to mothers with syphilis will not suffer from syphilis themselves initially, with symptoms developing later in life. Those that do generally suffer a rash at first, and the other symptoms over time, including neurosyphilis. These can be arrested and defeated with proper treatment, otherwise more severe complications may occur.
How serious is Syphilis?
Syphilis is a very serious condition. The infection is first and foremost very dangerous to all systems of the body, capable of causing very painful, very permanent damage and doing so over the course of one’s life. Syphilis infection untreated can very easily be the death of anyone regardless of their initial health. The disruption it can cause is similarly of note, as it can completely destabilize one’s life with the symptoms alone. This is assuming that the origin of the symptoms is kept secret, as the stigma surrounding sexually transmitted diseases can easily ruin one’s career.
Each individual symptom is serious enough on its own, especially once syphilis has progressed past its second stage. Further, the ability of syphilis to hide dormant for decades at a time means that individuals can frequently push through the initial stages only to be brought to their knees again later in life by tertiary syphilis.
The contagious nature of syphilis means that not sharing it must be assiduously avoided. It is possible to share syphilis through sexual intercourse and, in some cases, other contact of the mucous membranes, such as kissing. This is coupled with the ability of syphilis to pass from mother to child.
What does Syphilis treatment look like?
Syphilis, fortunately, can be treated. Syphilis only flourishes in the developing and third world because those are the nations that are not well-equipped to treat syphilis, and its people have a tendency to lack the education required to repel it along with the finances to seek medical attention.
Antibiotics can very easily destroy the bacteria that cause syphilis and out-and-out end the disease. A single heavy dose of antibiotics, usually penicillin, are applied in a single injection. This only applies in early cases but can destroy it entirely and leave the previously-infected individual scott free.
After infection has already begun to spread, regular doses of heavy antibiotics can prevent the further spread of syphilis. Over time, these antibiotics will destroy syphilis outright. However, as late-stage syphilis involves neurological effects, the antibiotics will do nothing to reverse the damage that is already incurred; neurological damage as inflicted by syphilis is, effectively, untreatable.
More important than syphilis treatment is syphilis prevention. Syphilis can be prevented readily by the use of condoms. Safe sex is not simply a matter of contraception, but a matter of protection against infection. Syphilis is but one of the many infectious conditions that may be spread through incautious sexual practices. Many schools in many nations teach abstinence-only forms of sex education. This is well and good for preventing pregnancy in unmarried teenagers, to the degree that it is effective, but safe sex remains a crucial thing to understand later in life, and it extends to the need for condoms in all forms of sexual practice, even among individuals with no chance of pregnancy and for forms of sex that cannot incur pregnancy.
No inoculation exists at present to prevent syphilis. As with many conditions that may afflict neurological systems, a vaccine would be fairly dangerous for an ailment that can be fairly readily avoided through education and proportional caution.
How do I know if I have Syphilis?
Ideally, if an individual one has had sex with previously should discover they suffer from syphilis, they would inform their various sexual partners (whether or not safe sex was practiced). This can lead to rapid discovery of the bacteria and, simultaneously, its rapid destruction. This can prevent its spread and arrest all damage. Syphilis can be determined positively via a very simple blood test. Otherwise, one must wait for symptoms to present. Symptoms can take nearly a month to present for primary syphilis, making this an unreasonable means by which to identify the ailment in advance. The best way to deal with syphilis to simply avoid it altogether to the best of one’s ability.