An uncommon disease to New Zealand, syphillis can be an extremely serious problem if left untreated. The germs that cause syphilis, treponema pallidum, enters the body via tiny breaks or cuts in the skin or though the body cavities - eg anus, mouth, vagina, etc. Syphillis is almost always associated with sexual contact and is therefore classes as a sexually transmitted diease (STD). Syphilitic infections are usually associated with symptoms that span 3 distinct stages.First Stage
The first sign of syphillis is an ulcer called a chancre at the site of the infection. This ulcer is neither painful nor itchy and usually appears at the site of entry of the infection - this is usually around the sex organs. Sometimes the chancre is hidden in the anus or rectum or even in the vagina or mouth. The ulcer persists for between 10-100 days and is usually solitary and about 2-10mm but may sometimes be larger in diameter. This first stage is extremely infectious and diagnosis cannot always be made from a blood test - only by testing the fluid from the ulcer can a final diagnoses be made.
This stage is characterised by a rash, about six weeks after the initial infection. It often appears throughout the body, but is commonly seen on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. The extent of this rash is subjective and varies from person to person. This stage tends to last for just over a month or two. Additionally, the following may also be present - mouth ulcers, headaches, swollen glands, warts in the genital area, fever and a general feeling of unwellness. This second stage is also infectious as the ulcers and rash are focal site for large amounts of the syphilitic organism.
Third stage syphillis will occur after a period after the rash and ulcers disappear. The infected person may seem healthy with no further occurences of the disease for many months or even years. The manifestation of the disease at this stage varies from person to person. Some people will suffer damage to organs such as the brain, heart and spinal cord - leading to death or severe impairment of the nervous system if left untreated. Treatment can control the disease but wil not repair damage already done by the disease. The patient is often not infectious at this stage.Treatment
Treatment is dependent on the stage of the disease and the type of antibiotic used. Common antibiotics such as penicillin, tetracycline and erythromycin all work against the treponema organism - it is very important that the medication is taken EXACTLY as prescribed and that you do not miss any doses. After this initial treatment, regular visits to your doctor and blood tests are essential to make sure that the disease has been eradicated.
A special case is pregnancy as an infected mother can pass the disease onto the baby and this may damage the unborn child. Treatment can prevent this and so if you think you may be at risk of syphillis make sure you inform your doctor.
Reducing The Risk of Infection
Simply put, as syphillis is an STD, NO sexual contact implies an almost zero risk of catching the disease. However, making sure that you use condoms during sex, knowing your partner and having regular check-ups will reduce the chances of contracting and delaying treatment for the disease.