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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 type of bacterium called Treponema pallidum, which is transmitted when you make contact with an infected person’s sore, typically during sexual activity. The bacterium can enter your body by passing through your mucous membranes or minor cuts in the skin.1

Other modes of transmission for syphilis-causing bacteria would be via direct contact with an active lesion (during kissing) or to a baby from an infected mother.2,3 Syphilis cannot be transmitted from one person to another by: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

Syphilis is usually contagious during the primary and secondary stages, and sometimes in the early latent stage.5 According to the Mayo Clinic, you are more prone to be diagnosed with syphilis if you:6

  • Engage in unprotected sex
  • Have sexual intercourse with multiple partners
  • Are a man who engages in sex with other men
  • Are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

What Happens if Syphilis Is Left Untreated?

If left untreated, syphilis can trigger health problems like:7,8,9

Development of small bumps or tumors called gummas — Mainly composed of dead tissue and fiber, gummas can form on your skin, bones, liver or internal organs during the late stage of syphilis.

Neurological problems — Syphilis may spread to your brain and nervous system, resulting in a condition called neurosyphilis. This type of syphilis can cause severe headaches, difficulty in muscle movement coordination, paralysis, numbness and dementia.

It’s also possible for you to experience neurological problems such as stroke, hearing loss and meningitis, as well as bladder incontinence, loss of pain and temperature sensations, lightning-like sensations or sexual dysfunction (in men).

Cardiovascular problems — Syphilis can lead to an aneurysm (bulging), cause inflammation in the aorta and other blood vessels, and lead to heart valve damage.

Optical problems — In some cases, syphilis can spread to the eye and trigger ocular syphilis. Common symptoms include vision changes and even blindness.

HIV Infections — According to WebMD, having a syphilis diagnosis makes you five times more likely to be affected with HIV. This is because the syphilis sores easily bleed and provide a way for the HIV virus to enter the body via sexual intercourse.

Pregnancy- and childbirth-related problems — If you’re a pregnant woman diagnosed with syphilis, it’s possible that the infection can be passed to the unborn baby, resulting in congenital syphilis. Women affected by syphilis have a higher risk for a miscarriage and delivery of a stillborn baby, while babies who are infected with congenital syphilis may die a few days after birth.10

Although there are treatment options that may assist with preventing syphilis-caused death, there is a very little chance of repairing or reversing some of the massive and negative impacts caused by this infection.11

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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