A Long And Sordid History

Perhaps the most infamous of all sexually transmitted diseases, syphilis has a lengthy recorded history. Many famous men in history were afflicted with the disease, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher most noted for his idea "God is dead," who caught it from a prostitute and died. The disease was very common among the nobility of France in the middle ages and resulted in many deaths.

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is spread through sexual contact. When the disease is not treated it can cause brain, nerve, and tissue damage, and - as evidenced through history - death. The bacterium, Treponema pallidum is the cause of syphilis which is spread by vaginal, oral, or anal sex with an infected person. A pregnant woman can pass the disease to her unborn baby in the womb. It is also passed through blood exposure, such as needled used for illicit drugs.

Risk Factors For Syphilis

Syphilis risk factors include people between the ages of 15 and 34, those who have multiple sex partners and practice unprotected sex. The obvious risk is passing the disease from an infected person and it can be passed by touching a syphilis lesion. A person with a past history of STDs is at higher risk for contracting syphilis as well.

Stage One:  The Primary Stage

The disease progresses in four stages in an adult: primary, secondary, latency, and tertiary. In the primary or first stage, within 10 to 90 days of exposure, chancres (lesions) form at the site of the original contact-lips, the inside of the mouth, tongue, genitals, or rectum. Initially, the sore is painless and appears as a blister. Over time it becomes an ulcer type of sore that is also painless at first. However, it is possible for the lesion to contract another infection in which case it becomes painful. The ulcers will heal on their own within one to five weeks. The lymph nodes in the groin may be enlarged during this time, indicating infection. Even though the ulcers may be invisible, if the disease is not treated the infection may move to stage two.

Stage Two:  The Secondary Stage

The secondary stage of syphilis develops over weeks and months following the initial infection. A rash that isn't itchy but is accompanied by a sore throat, swollen glands, headache, and symptoms that resemble the flu indicates the beginning of this stage. The rash, which appears like prickly heat, usually lasts between two to six weeks. Other symptoms include small blotches or scales, moist warts in the groin area, fever, fatigue, achiness, slimy white patches in the mouth, rashes on the palms and soles of the feet, sunken dark circles on the skin and swollen lymph nodes all over the body.

Latency And Congenital Stages Of Syphilis

The latency stage is that point where the disease is a constant infection without symptoms and it may last for many years without progressing. It is diagnosed through a blood test that indicates a positive reading for syphilis. Early latency is the time when the disease is most often spread to other people. This resting period lasts for the first year after primary or secondary syphilis. People in the late latency period are not infectious as a rule. However, it is during this stage that a pregnant woman with the disease can pass it to her unborn child. With the advent of routine prenatal care, the incidents of syphilis in newborns has decreased appreciably. The early stages of congenital syphilis, (the disease in the infant) are similar to secondary syphilis in adults, except the rash may be more like blisters. The disease may remain latent for as long as two or three years and then manifest in blindness, deafness or borne formation problems.

The Last Stage...

In late stage, or tertiary syphilis, (which is very rare in Western industrialized countries) the bacterium causes damage to the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. It can lead to death.


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