Syphilis: What to Know, Where to Get Help

If you think you may have syphilis, you might be confused or afraid. It’s understandable; syphilis is a scary word, and so are the symptoms. The good news is that syphilis is treatable, and easily cured when detected early.

In addition, many health clinics can perform testing at little to no cost. They can also help you to explain the disease to your partners.

What Is Syphilis?

Syphilis is an infection caused by bacteria. After the initial outbreak, it can lie dormant in the body for a long time, even decades, before it becomes active again.

While it is active and causing symptoms, syphilis can increase the chances of a person developing AIDS.

Syphilis Symptoms

There are three main stages of syphilis, each with its own symptoms. Unlike many diseases, however, syphilis symptoms can appear during any stage, in any order.

Some people who are infected may have no noticeable symptoms for years. Others may experience symptoms within a few weeks.

Primary Stage
During the primary stage, a small sore, called a chancre, appears where the bacteria entered the body. Many people don’t know they have the sore because it’s often painless and hidden in the rectum or vagina.

The chancre typically appears about three weeks after exposure and heals within six weeks.

Secondary Stage
A few weeks after the chancre heals, a rash may appear that begins on the trunk but eventually covers the entire body. The rash usually doesn’t itch and may be accompanied by sores in the genital or mouth area.

Fever, muscle aches, and swollen lymph nodes may also occur. These symptoms may only last for a few weeks, or may come and go for up to a year.

Latent Stage
If there is no diagnoses and treatment within the first year, syphilis moves to the latent stage. This stage can last for years, and the person has no symptoms. At this point, the signs may never return, or the syphilis may progress to the third stage.

Third Stage (Tertiary) Syphilis
Tertiary syphilis occurs in 15 to 30 percent of those infected who don’t receive treatment. During the late stages of the disease, it may damage the brain, eyes, heart, nerves, bones, and liver. These conditions may not occur until many years after the person originally contracts syphilis.

Causes of Syphilis

The cause of syphilis is the bacterium Treponema pallidum. The most common means of contracting it is by having contact with an infected person’s sore. This usually occurs through sexual activity, including anal and oral sex.

The bacteria enter the body through abrasions in the skin or mucous membranes. A less common way syphilis transmits is through direct contact with an active lesion, such as during kissing.

Diagnosing Syphilis

Doctors can diagnose syphilis by testing samples of blood, fluid from sores, or cerebral spinal fluid. State health clinics often offer some tests for free or for a small fee, or a private clinic or a hospital can perform them.

Blood tests can show whether your body has the antibodies to the syphilis-causing bacteria. Fluid from a sore shows the presence of syphilis bacteria during the first or second stages. If there seem to be nervous system complications caused by syphilis, your doctor may recommend performing a spinal tap to check cerebrospinal fluid.

If you test positive for syphilis and need to inform previous partners, local health departments offer partner services. They will help you notify sexual partners of a potential infection, so that they can receive tests and treatment if necessary.

Treating Syphilis

Syphilis is easy to cure in the early stages. Penicillin is the usual treatment; however, another antibiotic is used for those allergic to penicillin. A single penicillin injection usually cures those who’ve been infected under a year.

You may require multiple doses if you’ve had syphilis longer, and may still have heart or brain damage if it goes untreated for too long.

The first day of treatment may result in a condition called the Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction. Symptoms include fever, nausea, chills, and a headache. The reaction usually only lasts for one day.

Once you’ve been treated, you will periodically need blood work to ensure that the penicillin is working. You must also avoid sexual contact until blood work shows that you are cured.

Your doctor will tell you to notify your sexual partners if you haven’t already done so, as they must be tested and receive treatment if needed. Because syphilis increases the chances of contracting HIV, you will also need an HIV test.

Want to Get Tested?

If you are insured and regularly see a certain healthcare provider, that is a great place to start. It’s always smart to check with your insurance provider to make sure tests, such as this, are covered.

If money is an issue, many clinics provide free STD tests. Refer to the resources listed below for affordable STD test options:

Free or Low Cost Clinics

At Home Testing

Private Testing Clinics

Awareness and prevention are key when it comes to sexually transmitted infections. While contracting an STD like syphilis can be unsettling, taking care of it as soon as possible can make a huge difference.

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  • Private Clinics

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  • At Home Testing

At home privacy. Mail in test samples. Results in 2-5 days.

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