Syphilis

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Adoptive Families Association of BC
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Definition
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease which is characterized by sores in the genital area or the mouth and/or lips.

Causes
Syphilis is passed from person to person through direct contact with the syphilis sores, or from mother to child during pregnancy. It cannot be spread through indirect contact such as toilet seats, doorknobs, or swimming pools. 

Characteristics
Over half of those infected by syphilis are primarily asymptomatic and the infection may not be discovered for months or even years. When it is discovered there are three stages of progression which it may fit into, primary, secondary, and late.

The Primary stage is characterized by the initial appearance of sores. These sores occur at the site of infection and will disappear on their own without treatment although the syphilis infection remains in the body.

The Secondary stage is signalled by the appearance of a rash on one or more areas of the body. Commonly the rash appears on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet in a rough red or reddish brown pattern. However, it can appear in a variety of forms in different areas as well. In addition to the rash, patients may also suffer from fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue. Again, the symptoms may disappear on their own without treatment, although the syphilis infection remains in the body.

The Late stage usually takes years to develop and has no visible, external symptoms. Instead, it attacks the internal organs of the body including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, muscles, bones, and joints. The damage can cause blindness, paralysis, and even death if left untreated.

Congenital Syphilis
Many children infected with syphilis in the womb are stillborns and have died from the infection before birth. For those the do live, they may not exhibit symptoms immediately. When they do, those symptoms may include:

  • Failure to thrive
  • Fevers
  • Hepatitis or an enlarged liver
  • Aseptic meningitis
  • Rash

They can also develop Hutchinson teeth, inflammation of the cornea or saber shins (convexly bent tibia) despite early detection and treatment of the disease

Treatment
One dose of penicillin should cure syphilis in its early stage. Additional doses are required if the disease has had a chance to progress farther but it is easily cured. However the penicillin cannot reverse the damage already done so it is important to receive treatment as soon as possible upon detection.

Complications
The syphilis sores dramatically increase the chances of contracting or transmitting HIV. The sores can bleed if ruptured which undermines the body’s own defence system. Also because the sores can be hidden inside the vagina or rectum it is possible to be infected without knowing it. In this case the disease may be spread to different partners without either party’s knowledge. For this reason, regular blood tests are recommended.


This resource is by no means intended as a substitute for a doctor's advice or diagnosis. Any concerns you may have with regard to your child's health and development should be discussed with a professional in an appropriate field.