Syphilis: The Great Imitator of Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Syphilis ( Treponema pallidum) is a sexually transmitted disease ( STD) that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) says is often called “the great imitator” because so many of its symptoms are sometimes indistinguishable from those of other diseases. Syphilis is passed through sexual contact from partner to partner because of direct contact with a Syphilis sore. These sores, often called chancres, mainly occur on the external genital area, the vagina, the anus, or in the rectum; although they can also occur in the mouth and on the lips. Transmission of Syphilis occurs during sexual contact (vaginally, anally, or orally) although pregnant women can also transfer the disease to their babies. Contrary to rumors, Syphilis cannot be transferred through contact with doorknobs, toilet seats, bathtubs, hot tubs, swimming pools, shared towels or clothing, or eating utensils. Unfortunately, many people who are infected with Syphilis do not even know they have the disease, because they may not have any symptoms for years – or the Syphilis sores are unrecognized or interpreted as signs of another disease. This explains the term “the great imitator,” as most Syphilis transmission is between people who are totally unaware they even have the disease. An inexpensive blood test can be done, however, to determine if someone has the disease. There can be three stages to Syphilis: primary, secondary, and late stage – depending on treatment and the course of the disease. The primary stage is usually marked by appearance of a chancre sore, which is a single Syphilis sore (but there can be multiple sores). Time range between full Syphilis infection and start of the first symptom can actually range from 10 to 90 days, with an average of 21 days. The chancre sore is typically firm, small, round, and painless. This sore lasts three to six weeks, and will heal on its own even without treatment; however, without treatment, it will progress to the secondary stage of the disease. The secondary stage of Syphilis will usually start with development of skin rashes on several areas of the body, but these areas will not itch. This will happen either as the Syphilis sore is healing or weeks after it has healed. The rashes may begin as red or brownish-red rough spots on the bottoms of the feet and the palms of the hands; however, other types of rashes may occur in other places. Again, this is where Syphilis earns its nickname of “the great imitator,” as these rashes can be misinterpreted as another skin condition. Other symptoms of the second stage of Syphilis are: swollen lymph glands, sore throat, fever, hair loss, weight loss, headaches, fatigue, and muscle aches. These symptoms will also resolve even without treatment; however, without treatment, Syphilis will progress to the late stage of the disease. The last stage of Syphilis begins when the secondary stage symptoms disappear. Symptoms of the last stage include: uncoordinated muscle movements, numbness, paralysis, dementia, and gradual blindness. Without treatment of the other stages, Syphilis will stay in the person’s body, even without symptoms. After the late stage, Syphilis could then damage internal organs (such as: the brain, eyes, nerves, blood vessels, heart, liver, joints, and bones) even though this damage may not show up until many years later. This damage can even be fatal. The only way to be 100% sure you will not become infected with Syphilis is to abstain for sexual intercourse except for a long-term monogamous relationship with a sexual partner that is known to be disease-free. Condoms can help prevent the potential transmission of this STD, but they can break, so never engage in intercourse with a person that you suspect might have Syphilis or any other STD. Safe sex practices, including avoiding all high-risk sexual behaviors such as selecting a sex partner while intoxicated, will help you avoid contracting Syphilis, Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, HIV/AIDS, Genital Herpes and other STDs. A single dose of Penicillin given by injection is the cure for a person who has had Syphilis for a year or less; someone who has had it for more than a year, however, will need more than one dose.