One of the oldest sexually transmitted diseases, syphilis is a highly contagious bacterial infection. Records of the disease go back to the time of Columbus's voyage, and historians argue over whether syphilis originated in the Americas, Europe, Asia, or Africa.
After declining in the United States in this century, the number of syphilis cases began to rise in the 1950s, with the height of the most recent epidemic occurring in 1990. At that time the rate of syphilis was near a 30-year high and the number of children born with the disease had also soared.
However, the disease has been declining again since then—dramatically so. In 1998, only about 7,000 cases were reported in the United States—an 85-percent decrease from the 50,000 cases reported in 1990.
Syphilis is treatable and curable in its first two stages. If not treated, it becomes latent for a period of years until the outbreak of a final destructive stage.
Symptoms of Syphilis
- In the initial or primary stage of syphilis, one or more painless sores (chancres) appear on the genitals, mouth or anus—the sites where the bacteria can enter your body—anywhere from a few days to 12 weeks after the initial infection occurs (but on average 3 to 4 days after infection). Chancres are more obvious in men. Vaginal chancres are rarely noticed and heal without scarring. Lymph nodes near the area of the chancre may become swollen. Rashes may also appear on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet. The infection is highly contagious in this stage.
- If treatment is not received, the secondary stage of syphilis may occur, beginning six weeks to several months after the appearance of the chancre(s). This stage—during which the infection continues to be highly contagious—is characterized by fever, a nonitching rash, and flulike symptoms. Lymph nodes may enlarge. Each of these symptoms may occur, disappear, and then reappear later.
- The untreated bacteria may become latent, and people who reach this stage show no symptoms. Late-stage, or tertiary, syphilis can develop 10 or more years after the initial infection, with symptoms that can mimic many other diseases. This stage can result in damage to internal organs, including the heart and brain, and in death.
- Syphilis can also be transmitted to newborns by infected mothers.
What Causes Syphilis?
Syphilis is caused by the spirochete Treponema pallidum, a spiral-shaped bacterium that spreads primarily through sexual intercourse with a person who is in the primary or secondary stages of infection. (Late-stage syphilis is noninfectious.) The bacteria travel quickly and aggressively through the bloodstream and lymphatic system.
What If You Do Nothing?
The initial phase of syphilis will clear up by itself without treatment within a month or so. But the bacteria stay in the body, and within two to eight weeks, second-stage symptoms often appear. These symptoms will also clear up eventually without treatment.
Syphilis may then become chronic and ultimately fatal. The final tertiary, or late, stage of syphilis can begin years after the initial infection. Depending on the course of the disease, late-stage syphilis that has not been treated can cause heart disease, brain damage, destruction of bones or other organs, and, eventually, death.
Untreated syphilis during pregnancy results in infant death in up to 40 percent of cases.
Home Remedies for Syphilis
Syphilis cannot be accurately diagnosed and treated without professional help. There are no home remedies, so see a doctor or another healthcare professional if you get infected or think you might be infected.
- Know your partner. Get to know a potential sex partner before becoming intimate. Avoid anyone whose health status is questionable.
- Practice safer sex. Most important, use a latex condom each time you have sexual intercourse.
- Early detection. If you or your partner notice any symptoms of syphilis, contact your physician immediately and seek treatment.
- Get tested regularly if you have multiple sex partners. Even if you have no symptoms, ask your physician to perform a syphilis test annually.
- Abstain from sex. To prevent syphilis from spreading, abstain from sexual intercourse for at least two months after undergoing treatment. Make sure follow-up blood studies show no recurrence of the disease.
- Inform others. It’s important to notify your local health department. It’s also important to tell your sexual partner and make sure he or she also receives appropriate treatment.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Contact your physician if you or your sexual partner develops signs of syphilis. Also contact your physician if you have had sexual contact with someone you suspect may have syphilis.
What Your Doctor Will Do
After a careful examination, your doctor will perform blood tests for antibodies to the bacteria and examine the fluid from any lesions under a microscope. Even if no symptoms are present, diagnosis can be made by a blood test—though it usually takes four to six weeks after exposure for a positive result to show up, and in some instances results may be negative for up to 12 weeks.
Penicillin is the primary medication prescribed to treat syphilis; other antibiotics are prescribed for anyone allergic to penicillin.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media