What Causes Syphilis?

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  • Syphilis is usually contagious during the primary and secondary stages, and sometimes in the early latent stage
  • Furthermore, syphilis can cause neurological problems, such as stroke, hearing loss, visual problems and meningitis, as well as bladder incontinence and loss of pain and temperature sensations

The main cause of syphilis is a bacteria called Treponema pallidum,1 which is transmitted through contact with the sore of an infected person during sexual activity. The Treponema pallidum bacteria enters the body through minor cuts or abrasions in the skin or the mucous membranes.2

Syphilis can also spread through other ways, albeit these are less common. For instance, bacteria can move through direct and unprotected close contact with an active lesion (such as during kissing) or to a baby from an infected mother. Syphilis cannot be transmitted from one person to another by:3,4

Hugging

Sharing clothing or towels

Using swimming pools, bath tubs or hot tubs

Sitting on toilet seats

Touching doorknobs

Sharing cups, plates or cutlery

Risk Factors for Syphilis

A person is known to have a higher syphilis risk if:5

  • He or she engages in unprotected sex
  • He or she has sexual intercourse with multiple partners
  • He is a man who has sex with other men
  • He or she is infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

Syphilis is usually contagious during the primary and secondary stages, and sometimes in the early latent stage. While syphilis doesn't recur on its own once it’s addressed, a reinfection can happen if a patient comes into contact with another person’s syphilis sore.

What Happens If Syphilis Is Left Untreated?

If left untreated, syphilis can trigger health problems such as:6,7

Development of small bumps or tumors called gummas: These can form on the skin, bones, liver or other organs during the late stage of syphilis.

Neurological problems: Syphilis may spread to the brain and nervous system, resulting in a condition called neurosyphilis.

Patients with neurosyphilis experience severe headaches, difficulty in coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness and dementia.

Furthermore, syphilis can cause neurological problems, such as stroke, hearing loss, visual problems and meningitis, as well as bladder incontinence and loss of pain and temperature sensations.

Meanwhile, sexual dysfunction in men or impotence and sudden and lightning-like pain can also affect syphilis patients.

Cardiovascular problems: Syphilis can lead to an aneurysm (bulging), inflammation of the aorta (the body’s major artery) and other blood vessels and damage to heart vessels.

Optical problems: In some cases, syphilis can spread to the eye and trigger ocular syphilis. Common indicators of this disease include vision changes and even blindness.

HIV Infections: Having syphilis can greatly raise the probability of a patient developing an HIV infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults with syphilis or other genital ulcers have an estimated two- to five-fold increased risk of having HIV.

Problems during pregnancy and childbirth: Pregnant women infected with syphilis can pass the disease to her unborn baby, resulting in congenital syphilis (CS).

CS can also increase the risk of a miscarriage, delivery of a stillborn baby or infant death a few days after birth.

Take note that while treatments can assist with preventing future damage as a consequence of syphilis, they cannot repair or reverse the damage that has already happened.

MORE ABOUT SYPHILIS

Syphilis: Introduction

What Is Syphilis?

Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Congenital Syphilis

Syphilis Stages

Syphilis Causes

Syphilis Transmission

Syphilis Symptoms

Syphilis Treatment

Syphilis Testing

Syphilis Prevention

Syphilis FAQ

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