Type: Bacteria. Caused by a bacteria called Treponema pallidum. It is spread by direct contact with an infectious moist lesion usually through sexual intercourse. Syphilis is also spread by blood and bodily fluids, the same way as AIDS/HIV, so you can also get it from sharing needles with another person. Often people who use IV drugs get HIV and syphilis at the same time. Ask your partner(s) if he or she has ever used Intravenous drugs or steroids.
Incubation Period: 10 days to 3 months, averaging about 3 weeks.
The highest incidence of syphilis is in the 20 to 39 year old group, but you can still get it as a teenager. The disease progresses through several stages: primary, secondary, latent, and sometimes tertiary.
Symptoms: During the primary stage, the main symptom is an open sore called
a chancre (pronounced SHANKG-ker), at the point of contact. Primary
syphilis is noticeable on men when the lesion is on the penis or
scrotum. In females chancres may develop on the external genitals,
but they are more common in the vagina or cervix (so you can't see
them). The chancre heals within one to five weeks.
From six to twenty-four weeks later, symptoms such as a skin rash, fever, achy muscles and joints brings the person into the secondary stage. These symptoms also eventually disappear (in about 4 to 12 weeks) and the disease is no longer contagious. However, a blood test for syphilis will remain positive. This 'symptomless' period is called the latent stage. This is when the bacteria invade the organs of the body.
When signs of organ degeneration appear, the disease is said to be in the tertiary phase. Tertiary syphilis can occur as late as 20 years after the initial infection. When syphilis does go into the symptomatic tertiary stage is becomes a very serious medical condition. Lesions develop in the organs of the body. The lesions grow in the liver, bone, brain, spinal cord, and cardiovascular system. Central nervous system lesions can cause blindness, partial paralysis, memory loss or even make the person 'go crazy' with severe dementia.
Getting Tested: Syphilis can only be detected by a blood test, not by a culture or a pap smear! The blood test for syphilis is inexpensive and often free at your local Department of Health.
FYI... Sometimes the incubation period can delay the test's sensitivity, so tests are usually repeated after 6 weeks when the initial tests are negative and the health care provider suspects you have syphilis.
Treatment: Syphilis can be treated and cured with antibiotics. The treatment of choice is penicillin, but if you are allergic to it you can be treated with other antibiotics instead. This disease requires a long course of antibiotic treatment. Sexual partners should always be tested and sometimes treated even if they show no signs of infection. As you can see, syphilis is an STD to be taken seriously.
Left Untreated: Syphilis can lead to madness, blindness, liver failure and death. Left untreaded it can cause birth defects.