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Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. It is transmitted through vaginal, anal and oral sex with someone who is infected with the bacteria. Syphilis can also be transmitted from person to person through direct contact with syphilis sore. Pregnant women can also pass this infection onto their unborn baby. Syphilis is known as the ‘great imitator’ because its signs and symptoms copy so many other common illnesses. There are three stages of this disease:

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What Are The Symptoms Of A Syphilis Infection?

Syphilis infections in people develop in three stages. The first stage or also know as the primary syphilis appears about 21 days after infection with the appearance of a chancre (can be multiple or single sore) where bacteria entered the body. This is usually not painful and will heal without any treatment in 2-6 weeks, however, the person is still infected and contagious.

The second stage or secondary syphilis occurs about 2 months after the primary stage or can begin while the chancre is still present. Other symptoms include skin rash which also includes the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, fever, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, mucous patches on the inside of the mouth, patchy hair loss, headaches, fatigue and muscle aches.

Latent and third stage syphilis is the final phase of this infection if it is left untreated. Untreated persons without active lesions are considered to have latent syphilis. About two-thirds will remain asymptomatic, but the remaining one-third will develop symptoms approximately 10-40 years after the primary stage. These symptoms can include damage to internal organs including heart and brain, paralysis, gradual blindness and dementia. Death usually occurs due to complications from organ damage.

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How Common Is Syphilis?

Syphilis rates vary from state to state. In Idaho, our rates have been significantly lower compared to other states.

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How Do I Know If I Am Infected With Syphilis?

The most common way to test for syphilis is through a blood test. If you have been exposed to Syphilis or think it is possible that you may have been exposed or if you exhibit any of the symptoms associated with syphilis, get tested.

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Can Syphilis Be Cured?

Syphilis can be treated and cured with intramuscular antibiotics. However, if there has been organ damage, the antibiotics cannot reverse the changes that have already been caused by the bacteria in the body, this is why it is so important to get tested and treated if you think you may have been exposed to syphilis. Syphilis can be cured and no permanent damage will occur if it is diagnosed and treated early enough.

The chancres caused by syphilis make it easier to transmit and acquire HIV infection sexually. There is an estimated 2- to 5-fold increased risk of acquiring HIV if exposed to that infection when syphilis is present.

Pregnant women can transmit this bacterium to their baby during pregnancy through the placenta and if left untreated can cause fetal death, major birth defects and death after delivery.

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How Can I Protect Myself From A Syphilis Infection?

The best way to avoid getting syphilis is to not have sex, or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected. Syphilis can also be avoided by limiting your number of partners (the fewer people you have sex with the fewer opportunities you have to be exposed to the bacteria), and by using condoms.

Condoms, when used correctly and consistently, can greatly reduce the risk of syphilis transmission. Before you use a condom, be sure to check the package to make sure it is approved for STD prevention and that it has not expired.

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Lymph nodes: small bean shaped organs found throughout the body. Lymph nodes are part of the immune system and act as traps that catch foreign particles. When diseases are present the lymph nodes may become enlarged and swollen.
Intramuscular: when material is injected straight into the muscle.
Chancre: a painless lesion or ulcer (open sore) that appears at the site of entry of a syphilis infection into the body.
Placenta: an organ unique to mammals that connects a developing fetus to the wall of the mother’s uterus.
Mutually Monogamous: two people who are in an exclusive relationship with each other. Neither one of them has sexual contact with another person outside of their relationship.