The syphilis epidemic

The syphilis epidemic: what you should know

Infectious Disease, Sexuality,

Syphilis is an interesting disease. Historically feared, but these days, many sexually active people never think about it. In medicine, syphilis is known as “the great imitator” because the symptoms can imitate many other diseases.

A person can have syphilis and be totally unaware. If untreated, it can deform and kill. Fortunately, especially if diagnosed early, the cure is simple.

Syphilis epidemic

While AIDS is becoming less common in some areas, syphilis is on the rise. In October 2016, the Minister of Health of Brazil declared that syphilis was out of control, an epidemic. Anyone sexually active, or pregnant, should have some have some basic knowledge of this common disease.

What is syphilis?

A sexually transmitted disease caused by a corkscrew-shaped bacterium called Treponema pallidum (see photo above). It starts out relatively mildly. Often the symptoms are ignored at first. But within months, or even many years after becoming infected—and if not treated—syphilis can become a serious problem.

How is syphilis spread?

Syphilis is spread by sexual contact. The lesions can affect any surface on the sexual organs, or anus, or mouth. Syphilis at first shows itself as a sore in any of these locations, but, especially in women, the sore may be hidden from view, and the infected person does not know. Condoms—if they cover any syphilis skin lesion (known as a chancre)—will protect against spreading or contacting the disease.

What are the symptoms?

There are four stages of the disease, and here are the symptoms for each stage:


From 10 days to 90 days (average 3 weeks) after being infected, the newly infected maynotice a firm, round, but painless firm nodule (chancre), which can occur on any sexual area, including the mouth. Since it is painless, many people ignore it, and it goes away on its own within weeks, even if not treated. This is one reason syphilis is dangerous—the initial symptoms go away and the person forgets about it.


If not treated, the bacterium spreads throughout the entire body. There is usually a generalized rash, brown to red in color, and it does not itch. This rash is unusual in that it may involve the palms or soles of the feet. Sometimes there is fever, aches, pains, swollen glands, fatigue, weight loss, or other symptoms.

The symptoms may be relatively mild, and might be thought to be from a virus, and again ignored. This stage usually starts around 6 to 8 weeks after infection, and may last for weeks or up to a year.  Again, even without treatment, the symptoms resolve.

In the second half of this series on syphilis, we will discuss the later stages, as well as diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

To find a doctor, of any specialty, anywhere in Brazil, check out our website:

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Esta postagem também está disponível em: Portuguese (Brazil)

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