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What Is It?
Syphilis (pronounced: siff-ill-iss) is a sexually transmitted disease caused by a bacteria that is known as a spirochete (through a microscope, it looks like a corkscrew or spiral) It is extremely small and can live almost anywhere in the body.

The spirochetes that cause syphilis can be passed from one person to another through direct contact with a syphilis sore during sexual intercourse (vaginal, anal, or oral sex). The infection can also be passed from a mother to her baby during pregnancy. You cannot catch syphilis from a towel, doorknob, or toilet seat.

In the early 1980's there was a decrease in the number of people that were infected with syphilis. However, more recently there has been a steady increase in reported cases of syphilis, especially in young adults and in men that have male sexual partners. In its early stages, syphilis is easily treatable. However, if left untreated, it can cause serious problems - even death. So it's important to understand as much as you can about this disease.

How Does An Individual Know that He or She Has it?
Syphilis occurs in four different stages:

Stage One
Red, wet sores that don't hurt appear on the vagina, rectum, penis, or mouth. This type of sore is called a chancre (shank-er), and it appears in the first place that the spirochetes moved from one person to another. After a few weeks, the chancre will disappear. Swollen glands may also appear during the first stage. Syphilis is highly contagious during this first stage. Unfortunately it can be easy to miss because the chancres are painless and can appear in areas that may not be easy to see, like in the mouth, under the foreskin, or on the anus.

Stage Two
If syphilis hasn't been treated yet, the person will usually break out in a rash, especially on the soles of the feet and palms of the hands. Sometimes the rashes associated with syphilis can be very faint or look like rashes from other infections and therefore, may not be noticed. Sores can appear on the lips, mouth, throat, vagina, and anus. Flu-like symptoms, such as fever and achiness, can also be present in this stage. Stage two usually lasts 1 to 2 weeks and will go away with or without treatment.

Stage Three
If syphilis still hasn't been treated yet, the person will have a period of the illness called latent (hidden) syphilis. This means that all the symptoms of the disease go away, but the disease is still very much there. Even though the disease is "hiding," the spirochetes are still moving around the body. Syphilis can remain latent for many years.

Stage Four (Late Stage)
If the disease still hasn't been treated at this point, it becomes known as tertiary syphilis. This means the spirochetes have spread all over the body and can affect the brain, the heart, the spinal cord, and bones. Symptoms of late syphilis can include difficulty walking, numbness, gradual blindness, and possibly even death.

How Long Until You See the Symptoms?
A person who has been exposed to the spirochetes that cause syphilis may notice a chancre from 3 days to 3 months later, though the average is 3 weeks. If the syphilis is not treated, the second stage of the disease may occur anywhere from about 3 to 6 weeks after the original sore (chancre). It's important to keep in mind that many people never notice any symptoms of syphilis.

What Can Happen?
Syphilis can be very dangerous to a person's health if left untreated. In both guys and girls, the spirochetes can spread throughout the whole body, infecting major organs. Brain damage and other serious health problems can occur, many of which can't be treated. A woman who is pregnant and hasn't been effectively treated is at great risk of putting her baby in danger. Untreated syphilis can also cause major birth defects. Syphilis also increases the risk of HIV infection, because HIV can enter the body more easily when there's a sore present.

How Is It Treated?
If you think you may have syphilis or if you have had sexual contact with someone who may have syphilis, you need to see your doctor or gynecologist right away. As it can sometimes be difficult to spot chancres, it's important to get checked on a regular basis, especially if you have had unprotected sex and/or more than one sex partner.

Depending on the stage, the doctor can make a diagnosis by examining the discharge from chancres, or he or she can do a blood test to look for the spirochetes. Early stages of syphilis are easily cured with antibiotics. If an individual has been infected for a long period of time, they will need treatment for a longer period of time. Unfortunately, damage to the body from the late stage of syphilis cannot be treated. Therefore, anyone with whom you've had unprotected sex should also be checked for syphilis immediately.

How Can You Prevent Getting Syphilis?
The best way to prevent any sexually transmitted disease is to not have sex. However, for those that decide to be sexually active, it's important to use protection and to have as few sexual partners as possible. Latex condoms are effective against most STDs, however, if there are any sores or rashes that cannot be covered by the condom, it's a good idea to refrain from having sex at that time.

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