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Understanding Syphilis -- the Basics

What Is Syphilis?

Syphilis (pronounced siff-eh-lis) is a bacterial infection that is sexually transmitted. It progresses in distinct stages. The disease is curable and progression is preventable if syphilis is caught early and treated. But if it isn't treated, it can cause serious damage to the cardiovascular system and brain and lead to blindness and nerve problems. 


Syphilis is often called "the great imitator," because its signs and symptoms are indistinguishable from those of other diseases.


What Causes Syphilis?

Syphilis is caused by a spiral-shaped bacterium called Treponema pallidum, which can enter the body through minor cuts or abrasions in the skin or through mucous membranes, most often during sex.

Syphilis is passed from person to person through direct contact with an infected ulcer. These ulcers occur most frequently on the external genitals, vagina, anus, or in the rectum. Occasionally, the sores also occur on the lips and in the mouth. Rarely, transmission can occur from ulcers on the hands. The genital ulcers of early syphilis can increase the risk of HIV transmission.

Thus, syphilis is transmitted during vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Pregnant women can pass the disease to the babies they are carrying.

Syphilis cannot be spread from toilet seats, pools, hot tubs, shared clothing, or eating utensils.

Can My Baby Get Syphilis From Me?

It's possible. Depending on how long a pregnant woman has been infected with syphilis, she has a good chance of having a stillbirth or giving birth to a baby who dies shortly after birth. Treatment of syphilis as quickly as possible is imperative once a woman suspects an infection. Even if the baby is born without symptoms, the baby could develop symptoms a few weeks after birth. Untreated babies may become developmentally delayed. They can have other medical problems, including deafness, cataracts, heart problems, and seizures. They may die.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 23, 2014

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