Written by : Dr.M.D.Mazumdar, MD
Syphilis is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases, occuring in almost 3.6% of the people with an active sexual life ( Journal of Community Medicine, India)
It is caused by a parasite (a spirochaete) called Treponema Pallidum (Spirochaeta Pallida). Although mainly seen in the genital area, syphilitic sores can also be seen on hands, on the lips, mouth or even on the breasts.
During sexual contact, the organism can pass from an open syphilitic sore in the genital region of one person (whether male or female) to the other.
Kissing and close bodily contact can also cause spread of the disease if one of the persons has an open syphilitic sore.
It can spread from the mother to the baby during pregnancy - the condition thus caused, is known as congenital syphilis and it can cause abnormalities or even death of the baby.
Syphilis cannot be spread by toilet seats, door knobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, bath tubs, shared clothing, or eating utensils.
This article will discuss syphilis occuring in the female genital region.
There are three stages of syphilis - Primary, Secondary and Tertiary. The signs and symptoms differ in the different stages of the disease.
The ulcer or sore has a reddish brown colour, a hard, indurated base and an irregular sharp margin. It is more or less painless, although the surrounding tissues may be slightly inflamed. Sometimes, this ulceration may be so slight that it may pass unnoticed by the patient.
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The ulcer soon heals spontaneously in about 8 weeks time. The secondary stage of syphilis starts when the spirochaetes from the primary sore enter the blood stream. The symptoms in the secondary stage are:
In untreated patients, the tertiary stage of syphilis can last for many years. During this time, the spirochaetes can attack the eyes, the joints, the blood vessels, the heart and the central nervous system.
Localised hard areas called 'gummas' may be formed in any part of the body. In the vulva, the gummas may break down to form shallow ulcers, with a red inflamed and edematous area surrounding them.
Syphilis can infect the baby in infected pregnant patients, either while still in the uterus or during childbirth.
If infection occurs while in the uterus, the baby may be born with a number of abnormalities. Infection during childbirth usually affects the baby's eyes, causing a severe form of eye infection.
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