What is syphilis?
If you�d been noticing a single sore on your penis for sometime and don�t know what to make of it, chances are you can be afflicted with syphilis. This sexually transmitted disease, caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, is also called the �great imitator� because its symptoms are mostly indistinguishable from those of the other diseases. In 2002, this disease infected more than 32,000 people in the US alone, an increase of 12.4% from the previous year. The incidence of syphilis is highest in 20 to 24 year old women and 35 to 39 old men. (1)
If you�re worrying you�d contract syphilis through toilet seats, bathtubs, doorknobs, swimming pools, sharing towels or eating utensils, relax. This disease doesn�t spread this way. The syphilis causing organism is transmitted during vaginal, anal or oral sex. It generally manifests itself as a sore on the penis, vagina, anus or rectum. Even lips and mouth can have these sores. The bad news is pregnant women can pass this disease to their unborn babies.
Symptoms of syphilis
The appearance of the symptoms of syphilis is a long drawn affair and they may not appear for years. All the same, the infection requires treatment, without which complications cannot be ruled out. This disease takes the following stages:
a. Primary stage: In the initial stage, the disease appears as a single sore called chancre, a firm, round, small and painless swelling. However, appearance of multiple sores is also possible. The sore or sores is where syphilis enters the body from. It can take anywhere from 10 to 90 days for the symptoms to appear, 21 days being the average. The symptoms last from 3 to 6 weeks and generally disappear without treatment. But, getting the treatment is important; otherwise you�re certainly headed for the secondary stage.
b. Secondary stage: This stage commences with the appearance of skin rashes and mucous membrane lesions anywhere on the body. They can appear either when the chancre is healing or several weeks after it has healed. The rashes can manifest themselves as rough, red or reddish brown spots both on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. However, they can appear on other parts of the body, sometimes resembling rashes caused by other diseases. Fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches and fatigue can accompany these rashes. Here too, the absence of treatment leads to the late stage.
c. Late stage: This is latent or hidden stage of syphilis and usually begins when secondary symptoms disappear. In this stage the disease starts damaging the internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and the joints. Although this damage is not immediately apparent, it may show up many years later and may result in problems, like difficulty in coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness and dementia. This damage can prove fatal too.
You can see the pictures of various stages at the bottom.
Diagnosing and treating syphilis
The usual method of diagnosing syphilis is to examine chancre or the infectious sore through a dark-field microscope. Another method is through a blood test, which shows syphilis antibodies. However, some amount of antibodies generally remains in the blood for months or years, even after the disease has been successfully treated.
A total cure of syphilis is possible if the treatment is started in its early stages, that is, within one year. This disease usually responds to penicillin, an antibiotic, given through a single intramuscular injection. For those who�ve had this infection for a longer period, additional doses of penicillin may be required. Penicillin usually kills the syphilis bacterium and prevents further damage, but it�ll not repair the damage already incurred.
Syphilis can be fatal. So, if you notice a sore, don�t hesitate or feel shy in approaching your physician, it can make a difference between life and death.