Syphilis is a highly contagious disease spread primarily by sexual activity, including oral and anal sex. Occasionally, the disease can be passed to another person through prolonged kissing or close bodily contact. Although this disease is spread from sores, the vast majority of those sores go unrecognized. The infected person is often unaware of the disease and unknowingly passes it on to his or her sexual partner.
Pregnant women with the disease can spread it to their baby. This disease, called congenital syphilis, can cause abnormalities or even death to the child.
Syphilis cannot be spread by toilet seats, door knobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, bath tubs, shared clothing, or eating utensils.
What Causes Syphilis?
Syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum.
How Common Is Syphilis?
Syphilis was once a major public health threat, commonly causing serious long-term health problems such as arthritis, brain damage, and blindness. It defied effective treatment until the late 1940s, when the antibiotic penicillin was first developed.
According to the CDC, the rate of new cases of syphilis had plummeted in the 1990's and in the year 2000 it reached an all time low since reporting began in 1941. However, new cases of syphillis doubled between 2005 and 2013 from 8,724 to 16,663.
How Is Syphilis Diagnosed?
Syphilis can be easily diagnosed with a quick and inexpensive blood test given at your doctor's office or at a public health clinic.
How Is Syphilis Treated?
If you've been infected with syphilis for less than a year, a single dose of penicillin is usually enough to destroy the infection. For those allergic to penicillin, tetracycline, doxycycline or another antibiotic can be given instead. If you are in a later stage of disease, more doses will be needed.
People who are being treated for syphilis must abstain from sexual contact until the infection is completely gone. Sexual partners of people with syphilis should be tested and, if necessary, treated.
What if Syphilis Is not Treated?
If syphilis is left untreated, it can cause serious and permanent problems such as dementia, blindness, or death.
How Does Syphilis Affect a Pregnant Woman and Her Baby?
Depending on how long a pregnant woman has been infected with syphilis, she has a good chance of having a stillbirth (birth of an infant who has died prior to delivery) or of giving birth to a baby who dies shortly after birth.