Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease characterized by contagious, open sores on the genitals, in the anal region, or in the mouth. Syphilis develops in three characteristic stages. It starts with a usually painless, open sore at the point of contact. Months later, a rash appears, which may be accompanied by fever, enlarged lymph nodes, sore throat, weight loss, malaise, loss of appetite, headache, stiff neck, and achy joints and bones. Syphilis then becomes latent, or hidden, for years.
Most often syphilis can be treated with a single antibiotic injection. Syphilis can be effectively treated with penicillin in its early stages; however, if left untreated, it can progress to cause severe physical and neurological disease.
Syphilis is transmitted through direct contact with a bacteria-filled sore or rash on a person already infected with the disease. The bacteria that cause syphilis are transmitted most often during sexual activity with a partner who has a sore (chancre). Syphilis can also be transmitted through direct contact with the rash in the second stage of the disease.
The bacteria that cause syphilis can spread from an infected mother to her fetus, or more rarely, from a tainted blood transfusion. Because syphilis can be transmitted from mother to fetus in utero, pregnant women are tested for syphilis infection as part of routine prenatal care. Syphilis can also be contracted through a blood transfusion, although routine screening of blood products makes this unlikely.
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