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What is Syphilis and Why is Testing Important?

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is usually transmitted through sexual contact. The disease starts as a painless sore, usually on the genitals, rectum or mouth. Syphilis is spread from person to person through contact with the skin or mucous membranes with these sores.

After the initial infection, syphilis bacteria can remain inactive in the body for decades before reactivating. Early syphilis can be cured, sometimes with a single injection of penicillin.

Without treatment, syphilis can seriously damage the heart, brain or other organs and can be life-threatening. Syphilis can also be passed from mother to unborn child.

Symptoms of Syphilis

Syphilis develops in stages, and symptoms vary in each stage. But the stages can overlap and symptoms do not always appear in the same order. You can be infected with syphilis without noticing any symptoms for years.

Primary Syphilis

The first sign of syphilis is a small wound called a chancre (SHANG-kur). A wound appears at the place where the bacteria entered your body. While most people infected with syphilis develop only one chancre, some people develop several.

Chancre usually develops about three weeks after exposure. Many people who have syphilis don’t notice it because it is usually painless and can be hidden in the vagina or rectum. Chancre will start to develop on its own within three to six weeks.

Secondary Syphilis

Within a few weeks of the initial healing, a rash may appear, starting on your torso but eventually covering your whole body – including your hands and soles.

This rash is usually not itchy and may be accompanied by warty sores in the mouth or genital area. Some people also experience hair loss, muscle aches, fever, sore throats and swollen lymph nodes. These signs and symptoms can disappear within a few weeks or come and go for a year.

The Hidden Phase of Syphilis

If you are not treated for syphilis, the disease goes from secondary to latent when you have no symptoms. The latent phase can last for several years. Signs and symptoms may never return, or the disease may progress to stage 3 (tertiary).

Tertiary Syphilis

About 15-30% of people infected with syphilis who are not treated will develop complications known as tertiary syphilis. In its late stages, the disease can damage the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. These problems can occur many years after the initial, untreated infection.

When to Get Tested?

Contact your doctor if you or your child have any unusual discharge, pain or rash, especially if it occurs in the groin area. Your doctor will then refer you for appropriate testing and review the results.

If you can’t get to your doctor in time, you can order a home syphilis test through our shop (among our range of STD tests).

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