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Sexually Transmitted Disease Facts

Type of Infection: Syphilis is caused by the Treponema pallidum bacteria.

Modes of Transmission of Syphilis: The most common way of contracting the disease is through genital or oral sex. However, it can be spread by non-sexual contact if the sores (chancres) rashes or mucous patches caused by syphilis come in contact with the broken skin of a non-infected individual.

Symptoms of Syphilis: In the initial phase, the disease produces painless sores or "chancres" that usually appear on the genitals but can appear anywhere on the body. If untreated, the disease progresses to other stages of infection which include a rash, fever sore throat, hair loss and swollen glands throughout the body.

Treatment of Syphilis: The disease can be cured with penicillin; however, damage done to body organs cannot be reversed.

Possible Consequences of Syphilis for the Infected Person: If untreated, syphilis may cause serious damage to the heart, brain, eyes, nervous system, bones and joints, and can lead to death. A person with active syphilis has an increased risk that exposure to HIV will lead to infection because the sores (chancres) provide an entry point for the AIDS virus.

Possible Consequences of Syphilis for the Fetus and Newborn: If untreated, a pregnant woman can transmit the disease to the fetus. Stillbirth and death within early infancy occur in many of these cases. 50% deliver an infant with active syphilis. If undetected, damage may occur to the infant's heart, brain, and eyes.

Prevention of Syphilis: Abstaining from vaginal, anal and oral sex with an infected person is the only 100% effective means of preventing the sexual transmission of syphilis. Latex condoms can reduce the risk of contracting the disease during sex. However, it is still possible to contract syphilis, even though using a condoms, via sores in the genital area. It is also important to avoid non-sexual physical contact with the infectious sores (chancres), rashes or mucous patches caused by syphilis.

Source: W Cates, "Reproductive Tract Infections," In Hatcher et al, Contraceptive Technology, Ardent Media, 2005.
Photo Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of STD Prevention, "Syphilis," STD Clinical Slides, 2003, www.cdc.gov/std/training/clinicalslides.