Syphilis is a bacterial STI caused by a strain of bacteria called Treponema pallidum. This infection is transmitted through sexual contact, whether it’s vaginal, anal or oral sex. Once infected, a person can still miss the symptoms for weeks or even months, as syphilis can lay dormant for significant periods of time, sometimes as long as three months. In the early stages, the symptoms can also be very non-specific, so even when they do appear, one can easily miss them or mistake them for something else.

Syphilis is characterized by its progression through three distinct stages, usually called primary, secondary and tertiary, with tertiary sometimes being preceded by so-called “latent stage” when the symptoms seem to disappear completely for some period of time.

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Primary syphilis phase

The primary symptoms of syphilis usually appear between two weeks and three months following the moment of contracting the infection. At first, a painless lump or sore, usually called chacre, will appear on the penis, vagina or anus, depending on the location where the transmission took place. This most typical symptom of primary stage of syphilis can often be accompanied by swelling of the lymph glands throughout the body.

Secondary syphilis phase

Secondary stage of syphilis will usually begin once the tell-tale chancre disappears. At this point, other symptoms may manifest, including:

  • Rashes
  • Headaches
  • Weight loss
  • Inconsistent hair loss
  • Small growths on the skin in various body parts

After certain amount of time has passed, these symptoms, the infection will move into its latent stage when the symptoms will slowly diminish and seemingly completely disappear. While many interpret this as a significant improvement, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only will syphilis remain equally contagious in its latent stage, but it will without doubt progress into its final, tertiary phase, where severe complications and significant, sometimes even lethal risks may be present.

Tertiary syphilis is known to cause permanent damage, most notably:

  • Blindness
  • Loss of hearing
  • Heart conditions
  • Stroke
  • Dementia
  • Tumour-like growths called gumas across the body

Diagnosing and treating syphilis

Syphilis can be easily identified in any STI test, so regular testing is the single most important precondition for successful treatment of this infection. People who get diagnosed while in primary of secondary stage can be efficiently treated with antibiotic medication, without any complications. However, if the treatment is not administered timely or the condition is discovered once it has already progressed to the final stage, hospitalization might be required.

Despite the fact that this disease is notorious for its severe impact on health and also appearance of an individual, it can be treated surprisingly easily! Most of the stories about lethal and very distressing nature of syphilis are remnants from the time before antibiotics were discovered and commonly used. Today, if the condition is diagnosed early, it can be completely successfully treated even with simple, general-purpose antibiotics such as Erythromycin.

These medicines work by compromising the bacteria’s ability to replicate and spread. More specifically, antibiotics interfere with cellular processes so that bacteria are no longer able to synthesise a crucial self-sustaining protein that they need for multiplying and growing. Once infection loses the ability to spread further, antibodies and body’s natural defences have an easy task of simply clearing up the body of bacteria.

However, you should keep in mind that sometimes, especially if the treatment begun relatively late, you might need several courses of antibiotics in order to completely clear out the infection. This is why it is important to get re-tested after you completed the treatment in order to confirm that no sign of bacteria is present any longer.

What types of treatment are available?

Since syphilis is a bacterial infection, it comes as no surprise that antibiotics are the go-to treatment for this condition. While some types such as Erythromycin are used very often, in theory, every type of antibiotic can be successful in treating this condition.

While their mechanisms of action can vary depending on the exact condition they are used to treat, in case of syphilis, antibiotics achieve their goal by disrupting cellular processes of the bacteria, making it impossible for them to produce an essential self-sustaining nutrient. Without ability to sustain itself or replicate, the bacteria becomes easy target for the immune system.

Side effects of antibiotics treatment

Although they get their fair share of critique, especially when used improperly, antibiotics are very safe when it comes to side effects – only a small percentage of users will experience any. However, it is still important to get familiar with the possible side effects so you can recognize them and seek medical advice if they do manifest. While most antibiotics come with similar array of potential adverse effects, some of them can be brand-specific, so the best way to get familiar with potential risks is to read through the official patient information leaflet that is issued with every pack of each medicine.

The risk of side effects is somewhat higher when using so-called broad-spectrum antibiotics. These adverse effects include:

  • General malaise
  • Symptoms of influenza
  • Decreased liver function
  • Indigestion
  • Stomach pain

It is also important to note that prolonged use of antibiotics can cause imbalance in the useful microbes living within human body. This can lead to some complications, usually caused by sudden increase in numbers of one or several types of otherwise harmless bacteria. In turn, this process can affect stomach and the guts or other parts of the body – for example, it can lead to Candida issues or bacterial vaginosis in women.

Can I use antibiotics with other medicines?

Antibiotics have been known to interfere with certain types of commonly used medicines, most notably contraceptive pills based on progesterone, oestrogen or synthetic versions of either of the two. This is why it is highly advisable to tell to your doctor about any medicine you might be taking at the moment or that you have been taking recently. This includes not only prescription medicines, but also over-the-counter drugs, supplements and remedies.