Syphilis

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum and can progress chronically.

How is syphilis transmitted?

Syphilis can be transmitted through oral, vaginal or anal intercourse with an infected person in a contagious phase.

What are its symptoms and its consequences?
If untreated, syphilis manifests in different stages:

  1. The first signs and symptoms can appear as early as one week and as late as three months after infection, for example as red spots, lumps or sores at the entry point of the bacterium. Spots in the area of the anus, vagina or throat often remain undiscovered because they are usually painless. These symptoms disappear, even without treatment, after four to six weeks. However, the disease and its transmissibility remain. 
  2. The second stage more or less immediately follows the first and is characterised by varying types of mainly non-itching skin rash, which often affects the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. Flu-like symptoms, swollen lymph nodes, hair loss and other symptoms may also occur. These symptoms likewise disappear on their own, without treatment. 
  3. Next is a period of several months to several years during which the disease progresses without the appearance of symptoms. During the first year of this stage, those affected may show sporadic damage of the skin and mucous mem- branes and consequently are potentially still infectious.

In the long term, syphilis can lead to severe damage to the heart, brain, bones, skin and other organs. 
All stages can lead to damage of the nervous system, which is referred to as neurosyphilis.

How is syphilis tested for?
Testing for syphilis involves analysis of a mucosal swab or a blood test.

How is syphilis treated?
Syphilis is treated with antibiotics. If recognised early, the infection is curable.

Should sexual partners get treatment as well?

The person concerned should consider, together with her or his physician, where the infection might have come from and whom it might already have been passed on to. Those sexual partners should be informed about the diagnosis so they can get a medical exam and, if necessary, treatment.

In case of ongoing sexual relationships, both partners need to (a) be treated simultaneously and (b) adhere to the safer sex rules until they are both cured. By doing so the partners will not repeatedly reinfect each other.
Note: Given the three-month incubation time, during which lab results may show a false negative, co-treatment of the partner should be considered in any case. 

Non-treatment may lead to severe health problems later on.
For some conversation tips and information on further support options, see www.lovelife.ch .

How can the infection be prevented?

Condoms and other safer sex measures reduce the risk of getting infected with Syphilis. Therefore:

  1. Vaginal and anal sex with a condom
  2. And because everybody loves different things: do the personalised Safer Sex Check. at lovelife.ch

But an infection is nevertheless possible, and it’s important to detect it early.

Sexual partners need to be treated simultaneously to avoid so-called “ping-pong” infections, where the partners repeatedly reinfect each other.

People with changing or multiple simultaneous sexual part-ners should talk to their doctor or another specialist about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and get advice on whether tests may be necessary.

Source: Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), Factsheet Syphilis lovelife.ch