Syphilis

WHAT IS IT?

Syphilis is a bacterial STI. It is a fairly uncommon infection in Canada, but there has been an increase in both adult and passed from birth (congenital) syphilis cases in some communities. Syphilis occurs in stages – primary syphilis, secondary syphilis, early latent syphilis, and tertiary syphilis.

 

HOW WOULD I GET IT?

Syphilis can be spread through unprotected oral, vaginal, or anal sex by coming in direct contact with bacteria contained in the syphilitic sores or rashes. Condoms can help prevent the spread of syphilis during anal or vaginal sex, and condoms or dental dams can be used for protection during oral sex. In rare cases, syphilis can be spread through the sharing of unclean needles or receiving a blood transfusion. Syphilis can also be passed from a parent to their child during pregnancy, which can result in death of the fetus or congenital syphilis in the infant. Congenital syphilis is a severe, disabling, and often life-threatening infection.

 

HOW WOULD I KNOW I HAD IT?

Syphilis occurs in stages and each stage is associated with unique symptoms.

Primary syphilis

3 days to 3 months after exposure, an infected individual develops a small, painless sore called a chancre (pronounced ‘shang-ker’). Many people don’t notice the sore. The chancre appears on the part of the body where the bacteria entered, such as external genitalia, on the cervix, in the vagina, under the foreskin, in the anus, mouth, or throat. The sore will heal on its own without treatment, usually in 3-6 weeks, but this does not mean that the syphilis infection is gone or that the person is no longer infectious.

Secondary syphilis

2 weeks to 6 months after exposure, an infected individual may develop a range of symptoms, which commonly include the following:

  • A general feeling of being unwell
  • A rash anywhere on the body, but typically on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
  • Patchy hair loss
  • Flat, smooth warts in the genital area (not the same as those caused by genital warts)

Early latent syphilis

This stage is usually has no symptoms, but for the first year after exposure, the infected person can still pass the bacteria on to partners, and may have recurrences of lesions or rashes.

Tertiary syphilis

If left untreated, an infected individual may develop tertiary syphilis. This can lead to damage of the cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels); the neurological system (brain, nerves), and other major organs of the body, such development of gummas on the bone or internal organs, eyes and sense of touch. If left untreated, syphilis can lead to death.

 

CAN IT BE TREATED AND CURED?

Yes. Syphilis is usually diagnosed with a blood test. Sometimes when there is an obvious sore it can be swabbed and sent to the lab for testing. Syphilis can be treated with antibiotics. It is important for all partners to be treated. Response to treatment must be monitored over time to ensure it is effective, especially people who also have HIV.

 

IF IT ISN’T TREATED, CAN IT LEAD TO MORE SERIOUS PROBLEMS?

Yes. Syphilis can lead to serious complications if not detected and treated early. As mentioned above, an infected individual can progress to the tertiary stage of syphilis. This can lead to damage of the cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels); the neurological system (brain, nerves), and other major organs of the body. Complications of tertiary syphilis may lead to death.

It is also important to note that all persons infected with syphilis are at increased risk of contracting and transmitting HIV.

If an infected parent passes syphilis to their infant during birth, it can result in fetal death or congenital syphilis, which includes birth defects and developmental delay.

 

HOW TO BOOK AND PREPARE YOURSELF FOR AN APPOINTMENT?

Booking an appointment with us is easy! Give us a call at 902.455.9656 ext. 0. You will be speaking with either a volunteer or a medical administrator. We cannot book appointments over email or Facebook. You cannot book an appointment for someone else, even if they are your partner or child. We will need to speak with them directly. To book, we will need your full name, birth date, phone number, and a very brief reason for your visit. That’s it! The person on the phone will outline anything you need to know to prepare for your appointment. For most general appointments, we run very short waitlists! While this is not a guarantee, we can often book you in the same or next week from the day you call.

Make sure you bring your valid provincial health card with you to your appointment. Clients without health cards are subject to doctors and lab fees.

Are you a youth? You do not need parental consent for any of our appointments.

Don’t have access to or lost your health card? You are entitled to your health card information! Call MSI toll-free at 1-800-563-8880 (in Nova Scotia) or at 902-496-7008 from Monday-Friday 8am-5pm. We require the number and the expiry date. Another tip: take a picture of your card! You will never lose it again!

APPOINTMENT PREP

Be well hydrated and have something to eat. We do not do reminder phone calls for our blood work appointments, so be sure to add your appointment to your calendar!