Syphilis: Understanding Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention in Oklahoma

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that has seen a resurgence in recent years, including in Oklahoma. While syphilis is treatable, early detection and intervention are crucial to prevent severe complications. This article will discuss the causes, symptoms, stages, risks, and prevention of syphilis with a focus on Oklahoma.

What is Syphilis?

Syphilis arises from a bacterial infection triggered by the microorganism known as Treponema pallidum. It spreads primarily through sexual contact and can have devastating health consequences if left untreated.

 Syphilis Transmission/ How Do I Get It?

Understanding How the Infection Spreads

Syphilis is a highly contagious bacterial infection primarily transmitted through direct contact with a syphilis sore (chancre). Let's delve deeper into the specific ways transmission can occur:

Sexual Contact

  • Vaginal Sex: This is the most common mode of transmission, where the bacteria spreads through contact with an infected partner's genitals.
  • Anal Sex: Receptive anal sex carries a higher risk of transmission compared to insertive anal sex.
  • Oral Sex: Transmission through oral sex is possible but less common. Contact with a chancre on the genitals, anus, or mouth can spread the infection.

Important Considerations

  • Infectious Stages: Syphilis is most contagious during the primary and secondary stages when chancres are present.
  • Transmission Throughout Stages: Transmission can still occur in the latent stage, although less likely.
  • Non-Sexual Transmission

While sexual contact is the primary mode of transmission, there are rare ways syphilis can spread in non-sexual ways:

  • Mother to Child (Congenital Syphilis): An infected mother can pass the bacteria to her baby during pregnancy or childbirth. This can lead to severe health problems or death for the baby.
  • Direct Contact (Very Rare): In very rare instances, prolonged direct contact with a chancre on another person's skin can transmit the bacteria. This is not a common mode of transmission.

Protecting Yourself from Syphilis

Here are some key strategies to reduce your risk of syphilis transmission:

  • Consistent Condom Use: Correct and consistent use of condoms during vaginal, anal, and oral sex significantly reduces the risk of transmission.
  • Mutual Monogamy: Maintaining a monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is free of syphilis is another way to minimize risk.
  • Regular Testing: Getting tested for STIs, including syphilis, is crucial for early detection and treatment, preventing further spread.
  • Open Communication: Talking openly and honestly with sexual partners about sexual history and testing is vital for responsible sexual health practices.

Remember: Early diagnosis and treatment of syphilis are essential to prevent complications and transmission. If you've engaged in risky sexual behavior or experience any potential symptoms, don't hesitate to get tested and seek medical attention.

Syphilis Causes: The Root of Infection

It's important to understand that syphilis has one single, definitive cause:

  • The Bacterium Treponema pallidum: This spiral-shaped bacterium is the sole cause of syphilis. Infection occurs when this bacterium enters the body through broken skin or mucous membranes.

The Treponema pallidum bacterium is incredibly fragile outside the human body and cannot survive for long on surfaces. Therefore, transmission primarily occurs through these routes:

  • Direct Contact with a Syphilis Sore: Sexual contact (vaginal, anal, or oral) with an infected person's chancre is the most common way the bacteria spreads. Chancres can be on the genitals, anus, in the rectum, or on the lips and mouth.
  • Mother-to-Child Transmission: An infected pregnant woman can pass the bacterium to her baby during pregnancy or delivery, leading to congenital syphilis.

There are some common misconceptions about how syphilis can be spread. Syphilis is NOT transmitted through:

  • Casual Contact: Sharing eating utensils, hugging, shaking hands, using the same toilet seat, hot tubs, or swimming pools cannot spread syphilis.
  • Clothing or Objects: Treponema pallidum dies quickly outside the body and cannot be transmitted through contact with clothing or other objects.

Syphilis is caused by a specific bacterium. Understanding transmission routes is crucial for effective prevention. By practicing safe sex, getting tested regularly, and seeking prompt treatment if infected, we can protect ourselves and others from this STI.

Syphilis Stages in Men and Women

Syphilis progresses through distinct stages, each with varying symptoms:

  • Primary Syphilis:
    • Symptoms: The primary stage presents with a painless sore called a chancre at the site of infection (often the genitals, anus, or mouth). The chancre may go unnoticed and heals on its own within a few weeks, even without treatment.
    • Duration: Approximately 3-6 weeks after the chancre heals.
  • Secondary Syphilis:
    • Symptoms: Includes a skin rash (often rough, red, or reddish-brown spots on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet), swollen lymph nodes, fever, fatigue, hair loss, muscle aches, sore throat, and headaches.
    • Duration: These symptoms can appear weeks or months after the chancre disappears and will resolve with or without treatment.
  • Latent Syphilis:
    • Symptoms: After the secondary stage symptoms go away, the infection enters a latent (hidden) stage with no visible signs or symptoms.
    • Danger: Even without symptoms, the bacteria remains in the body, potentially damaging organs over time.
  • Tertiary Syphilis:
    • Development: If left untreated, about 15-30% of infected people develop tertiary syphilis years or decades later.
  • Serious Complications: Gummas (soft, tumor-like growths on skin, bones, and organs), neurological problems (including blindness, stroke, dementia), and heart or blood vessel damage.

Syphilis Symptoms in Men and Women

While the overall stages of syphilis are the same for men and women, some subtle differences exist in how symptoms may initially present:

Syphilis Symptoms in Men

  • Primary: A single, painless chancre usually appears on the penis, but can also develop on the scrotum, anus, or inside the mouth.
  • Secondary: Rash, often on palms and soles, along with other systemic symptoms.

Syphilis Symptoms in Women

  • Primary: A chancre often develops on the vulva or vagina, but may be located internally (on the cervix) and remain unnoticed.
  • Secondary: Rash, often on palms and soles, along with other systemic symptoms.

Important Considerations

  • Asymptomatic Infections: Many individuals, particularly women, may not experience any noticeable symptoms during the early stages of syphilis. This makes regular STI testing crucial, even in the absence of symptoms.
  • Symptom Overlap: Some syphilis symptoms can mimic other infections or conditions. Seeking professional medical evaluation is essential for accurate diagnosis and treatment.
  • Complications: Untreated syphilis, regardless of gender, can progress to late stages, causing irreversible damage to the heart, brain, eyes, and other organs, potentially leading to disability and even death.

Why Early Diagnosis Matters

Early detection and treatment of syphilis are critical for:

  • Stopping Progression: Treatment with antibiotics can cure syphilis in the early stages, preventing serious complications.
  • Prevention of Spread: Treatment interrupts transmission of the infection to sexual partners or a developing baby in pregnant women.

Don't Ignore the Signs: Get Tested

If you experience any concerning symptoms, or if you have engaged in unprotected sex with a new or untested partner, seek medical attention promptly. Getting tested for syphilis and other STIs is a vital part of maintaining your sexual health and the health of your partners.

Untreated syphilis during pregnancy poses serious risks for the baby:

  • Congenital Syphilis: Infection can be passed to the baby during pregnancy, causing severe birth defects, stillbirth, or infant death.
  • Prevention: Early prenatal testing and treatment with antibiotics can prevent transmission to the baby.
  • Blood Tests: Detect antibodies produced by the body in response to the syphilis bacteria.
  • Chancre Testing: A sample can be taken from a syphilis sore for microscopic examination.

Syphilis is treatable with antibiotics. Penicillin G is the recommended therapy for every phase of the infection. It's crucial to:

  • Complete Treatment: Finish the full antibiotic course, even if symptoms disappear.
  • Retesting: Get follow-up testing to ensure the infection is cured.
  • Notify Partners: Past sexual partners need to be notified and tested.

Understanding how to reduce your risk is crucial in preventing syphilis transmission. Here's a breakdown of effective prevention strategies:

Safer Sex Practices

  • Condoms – Your Ally: Correct and consistent use of condoms during vaginal, anal, and oral sex significantly lowers the risk of contracting syphilis. However, any areas not covered by the condom may still be vulnerable to sores.
  • Dental Dams: These thin latex squares help provide protection during oral sex with a female partner.
  • Communication is Key: Have open and honest conversations with your sexual partner(s) about sexual history, testing, and any existing STIs before engaging in sexual activity.

Beyond Condoms: Additional Protection Measures

  • Testing – The Power of Knowledge: Regular STI testing is essential. Get tested for syphilis and other STIs, especially if you have new or multiple partners. Early detection and treatment interrupt transmission.
  • Limit Partners: Reducing the number of sexual partners lowers your overall exposure risk.
  • Mutual Monogamy: In a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship where both partners have tested negative for STIs, the risk of syphilis is significantly reduced.

Special Considerations

  • Syphilis and HIV: Having syphilis increases the risk of acquiring and transmitting HIV. Take extra precautions if you are living with HIV or have partners who are.
  • Pregnancy: All pregnant women should be tested for syphilis at their first prenatal visit and again later in pregnancy if at high risk. Early detection and treatment are vital to protect the baby's health.

Important Reminders

  • No Complete Elimination of Risk: Even with precautions, there remains some risk of syphilis if sores exist on areas not covered by a condom or dental dam.
  • Testing Still Matters: Get tested regularly even when using protection.

Syphilis Vaccine: The Future?

Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent syphilis.
However, research is ongoing, and a vaccine could be a valuable tool for prevention in the future.

Empower Yourself: Take Charge of Your Sexual Health

By understanding syphilis transmission, practicing safer sex, getting tested regularly, and communicating openly with partners, you can proactively protect yourself and others from this preventable STI.

Risk Factors for Syphilis in Oklahoma

Knowing the risk factors helps you make informed decisions about sexual health:

  • Men who have sex with men (MSM): MSM account for a disproportionate number of syphilis cases.
  • Young Adults: Individuals between the ages of 15 - 24 are at higher risk.
  • Multiple Partners: Having multiple sexual partners increases exposure risk.
  • Prior STIs: A history of other STIs increases susceptibility to syphilis.
  • HIV Risk: Syphilis increases the risk of acquiring and transmitting HIV.

Where to Get Tested and Treated in Oklahoma

  • Your Doctor or Healthcare Provider
  • County Health Departments
  • Community Health Clinics
  • Planned Parenthood Clinics

The Role of OHHPC in Fighting Syphilis

The Ending HIV Oklahoma & Hepatitis Planning Council (OHHPC) plays a pivotal role in addressing syphilis in Oklahoma:

  • Awareness Campaigns: Educating the public about syphilis transmission, dangers of untreated infection, and the importance of testing.
  • Targeted Programs: Developing outreach and testing programs for high-risk populations in Oklahoma.
  • Provider Engagement: Supporting healthcare providers with the latest syphilis diagnosis and treatment guidelines.
  • Policy Advocacy: Advocating for policies that prioritize sexual health education, prevention, and funding for STI testing/treatment services.

 

Remember:

Syphilis is preventable and treatable. With awareness, responsible sexual practices, and regular testing, we can stem the tide of syphilis transmission and protect sexual health in Oklahoma.

For further questions, don't hesitate to contact your healthcare provider or visit these helpful resources:

Let's work together to end syphilis in Oklahoma!