Disease Review: Syphilis

Pathogens, bacteria that cause illness in people, are everywhere. And they can be transmitted to humans and between humans in a lot of ways. A good example where pathogens thrive is contaminated food and water. 

Pathogens can be transmitted through respiratory droplets, direct contact, or sexual intercourse. Diseases transmitted due to sexual intercourse are called Sexually transmitted disease (STD). One of the most common STD caused by bacteria is syphilis.  

Syphilis is a chronic disease meaning medical conditions that last 3 months or more and requires long medical attention. This disease is infectious and has been plaguing the human population for so long. 

Hypotheses on Its Origin

The exact origin of the disease is unknown but several hypotheses on its origin are circulating. Syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. There are two other diseases caused by Treponema bacteria. The pinta disease caused by Treponema carateum and yaws disease caused by Treponema pertenue.

The pre-Columbian hypothesis states that the treponemal disease which includes syphilis was widely spread in both Old and New World. In Europe, most of the conditions were mistaken as leprosy. The pinta disease was already present in the Afro-Asian zone around 15,000 BC. Yaws occurred as a consequence of the mutations on pinta around 10,000 BC. and spread all over the world. The sexually transmitted syphilis emerged in South-Western Asia around 3000 BC due to lower temperatures. 

The unitarian hypothesis says that treponemal diseases – syphilis, yaws, and pinta- are variants of the same infections and clinical differences happened only because of geographic and climate variations around the world. They believed that the disease had always been globally distributed. 

One of the most popular hypotheses is The Columbian hypothesis. It states that navigators in the Columbus fleet would have brought the disease on their return from the New World in 1493. Documents of two Spanish physicians who were present at the moment Christopher Columbus returned from America supported the hypothesis. They considered syphilis as an unknown new 


Syphilis Through History 

The first recorded outbreak of syphilis happened in 1495. It occurred during the Italian invasion by Charles VIII and the French army. Italian physicians described the disease as a generalized eruption consisting of pustules more terrifying than leprosy and elephantiasis and that could be lethal and was transmitted through the sexual course. 

For many years, sexually transmitted diseases were thought to be a single illness. The differentiation between gonorrhea, cancroids, and syphilis as different diseases was only achieved in the early 19th century. 

In 1831 Ricord conducted a study on syphilis and gonorrhea. He was able to prove the distinction between these two diseases. 

In 1905, Hoffman and Schaudinn were able to pinpoint the causative agent of syphilis upon investigating various syphilis lesions. The first named the bacteria Spirochaeta pallida then later changed it to Treponema pallidum. In 1906, Landsteiner used the dark-field microscopy method to detect the bacteria on patients. 

Various cures were used throughout history. In earlier times, toxic chemicals such as Mercury and Bismuth salts were used. These were then replaced by antibiotics Salvarsand and Neosalvarsan. In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. From 1943, penicillin became the main treatment of syphilis. 


Syphilis is an infection caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. It is a motile helically coiled microorganism. It is the most invasive species under Treponema. 

Syphilis is usually spread through close contact with an infected sore. This primarily happens during vaginal, anal, or oral sexual intercourse. Pregnant women can transfer their syphilis to their unborn babies. 

It is also possible to get infected if you inject yourself with drugs and the needle you used was from an infected person. Infection through blood transfusion is also possible but rare. 

The bacteria enter the body through minor cuts or abrasions in the skin or mucous membrane. You may be infected with syphilis but will show no symptoms. The infection is still there even without symptoms until it gets treated. 

Stages of Syphilis

Syphilis is divided into stages and symptoms vary with each stage. But stages may overlap at times in certain cases. 

In the first stage, syphilis sore pops up on the point where syphilis entered the body. Syphilis sores are very contagious. It typically shows up between 3 weeks to 3 months after getting infected. The sore heals on its own.

Within a few weeks, after the sore healed, rashes on palms of the hand and other parts of the body appear. This is the second stage. It may include flu-like symptoms like fever, sore throat, and headaches. Sores can also appear in the mouth, vagina, or anus. They are similar to other common illnesses and can repeatedly come and go for as long as a year. 

The disease moves from the second stage to the latent stage. There are no signs or symptoms at all for months or years. Symptoms may never return but it can progress to the tertiary stage. 

About 15% to 30% of people with syphilis who don’t get treatment reach the late or tertiary stage. In this stage, syphilis can cause tumors, blindness, and paralysis. And damage other organs such as liver, bones, eyes, and joints. 

At any stage, it can spread and cause damage to the brain and nervous system. 

Treatment and Prevention

Syphilis is easily treated in the early stages. Prescribed antibiotics, such as Penicillin, and health care can treat it. Additional doses will be given for patients infected for more than a year. 

The best way to fight the disease is through early detection. Syphilis can be diagnosed by testing the blood or cerebrospinal fluid. Neurosyphilis can be detected using a CT scan. Suspected people should get tested as early as possible to prevent further complications. 

There are a lot of ways to fight and cure diseases. But as they say, prevention is still better than cure. Just simply boosting your immune system is already a good way to prevent diseases. For syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases, practicing safe and protected sex is a good way to prevent it. If you are sexually active, try getting tested for STDs.