Syphilis (SIF-i-lis) is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacteria (germ) Treponema pallidum. Sexual intercourse, oral sex or any contact between a man’s penis and a woman’s vagina can pass the germ from one person to another.
Anyone who is sexually active has a chance of getting syphilis. Those who have had more than one partner are at greater risk. Syphilis is passed person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore (chancre). The sore occurs mainly on the external genitals, vagina, anus or in the rectum. The sores can also occur on the lips and in the mouth. Many people are unaware that they have a syphilis sore.
If syphilis goes untreated, it can lead to serious health problems such as an increase in a person’s risk for getting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS. Pregnant women with syphilis can pass it to babies they are carrying. It may cause severe problems in the baby.
Syphilis has three phases:
Even without treatment syphilis sores will heal after 3 to 6 weeks, but if the infection isn’t treated the disease will progress to the second stage.
Late (tertiary) Syphilis
Blood is drawn from the arm and sent to the lab for testing. If you have a syphilis sore, a small cotton swab will be used to get a specimen from the sore. The specimen is examined by the lab for the syphilis germ.
One or more antibiotic injections are needed to treat syphilis. You may need to receive more than one injection depending on how long you have had the infection. You and your partner(s) must both be treated.
If you live in the Columbus area, your partner(s) can be treated at the Columbus Health Department, 240 Parsons Avenue, Columbus, Ohio 43215. The phone number is (614) 645-7772. If you live outside the Columbus area, call your local health department or primary care doctor for treatment options.
Blood tests will need to be taken 3 months, 6 months and 12 months after treatment. You and your partner must both be treated and have follow-up appointments to make sure the infection is gone (Picture 1).
Abstinence (not having sex) is the only 100% effective way to prevent STI’s. If you choose to have sex, here are some things you can do that might help prevent the spread of STI’s:
If you have any questions, call the Adolescent Medicine clinic at (614) 722-2450. For more information, you may also call the National STI Hotline at 1-800-227-8922, 8:00 am to 11:00 pm, Monday through Friday, or you can find out more at http://www.ashastd.org/.
HH-I-190 9/09 Copyright 2009, Nationwide Children’s Hospital