What is syphilis?

(1) What is it and how is it transmitted?

Syphilis is an infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It is possible to contract it more than once in a lifetime. It is transmitted through contact with syphilitic lesions during sexual activity with an infected person. This includes through oral, anal, and anal sex, nonpenetrative genital contact, sharing sex toys, and direct (skin-to-skin) contact with lesions. It can also be transmitted through blood, especially when sharing drug paraphernalia. There is also a risk of transmission during pregnancy and childbirth.

(2) Symptoms and complications

There are often no symptoms. Syphilis has been nicknamed “the great imitator” because its symptoms are often confused with those of other diseases. A person can therefore be infected without knowing it.

Untreated syphilis progresses through three stages. Here are the main symptoms for each stage:

  • Primary stage (3 to 90 days after infection): a chancre (painless ulcer) appears at the site of infection, and completely disappears on its own after three to eight weeks.
  • Secondary stage (2 to 12 weeks after the chancre has healed): a rash appears, most commonly on the chest, face, hands, feet, and genitals, and is accompanied with flu symptoms (fever, headache, fatigue).
  • Tertiary stage (5 to 30 years after the chancre has healed): after an extended latency period, if syphilis is left untreated, there may be several complications, which are detailed in the following section.

(3) Complications when left undetected and untreated

If syphilis is not treated, complications can arise even several years later: cardiovascular complications, lesions that can damage the skin and bones, as well as neurological complications that can lead to dementia and dizziness. In the long term, untreated syphilis can lead to death.

(4) Screening

Screening for syphilis involves taking a blood test.

(5) Treatment

Treatment for syphilis consists of the administration of antibiotics, most often in the form of an injection. Usually, a single treatment is sufficient, but several rounds of treatment may be necessary. The treatment is covered by RAMQ for the infected person and their partners.

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