Syphilis (Treponema pallidum)
What is syphilis?
Syphilis is caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum that gets into your body through tiny breaks. These breaks can be on the skin or on the delicate surfaces (mucous membranes) just inside the body, and sometimes they can be caused by the friction of sex. The bacterium that causes syphilis doesn’t survive well outside the body, and because of this, it needs close contact between people to go from one person to another. But where you’re having close contact with another person, the syphilis bacterium is really good at getting into your body. In fact, anything from kissing and fingering to oral, anal, and vaginal sex can let the syphilis bacterium in. And once the bacterium gets in, it has tricky ways of hiding from the immune system, allowing it to live in your body for a long time.
More information on syphilis can be found here.
What are the symptoms of syphilis?
Syphilis will show up differently in your body the longer you live with it, and you’ll generally experience it in three stages. But not everyone goes through all three stages and sometimes symptoms can be mild and missed. Additionally, symptoms can resolve without medicine, but this doesn’t mean it’s gone – you still have the syphilis bacterium in your body. The average time it takes to show symptoms is 3 weeks. The stages are as follows:
The first stage of syphilis usually involves a painless sore or ulcer, generally on the genitals, although it can appear in other places like inside the mouth. You’ll usually notice this sore or ulcer within 2 to 10 weeks after the syphilis bacterium gets into your body. Even if these sores or ulcers go away without medicine, you still need medicine to get rid of the syphilis bacterium – which will stop it progressing to the later stages.
The second stage of syphilis usually occurs a few months after the first stage. This second stage can involve fatigue, fever, and sore muscles, and it is often characterised by a rash. This rash can show up all over the body, including the soles of the feet and palms of the hand. And just like the first stage, this second stage can go away on its own. But if it does, you still need medicine to stop syphilis from progressing to the third stage.
The third stage of syphilis can occur 3 to 30 years later, after a period of the syphilis bacterium hiding in your body without symptoms. Over this time, the bacterium will get deeper into your body, into the brain, nerves, and blood vessels, and make you very unwell. But this stage is avoidable by testing regularly and taking medicine in the earlier stages if you have syphilis.
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