a lab technician working to diagnose syphilis

Diagnosing Syphilis

Syphilis is a contagious disease that is spread primarily through sexual activity. It is important to note that this disease is transmitted through open sores. In some cases, the disease can be transferred through close physical contact, such as kissing. Syphilis is commonly transferred through vaginal, anal, and oral sex.

The sores that cause the spread of syphilis often go unnoticed. Many times, the infected person is unaware he or she has the disease, unintentionally passing it onto a sexual partner. Contrary to popular belief, Syphilis is not spread through bath tubs, toilets, swimming pools, or eating utensils.

What are the stages of syphilis?

The primary stage of syphilis involves developing sores. During this stage, individuals with the disease will develop one or more sores that are similar to large, round bug bites. The sores are typically hard, reddish in color, and painless. They generally form around the mouth, genitals, or anus about a month after exposure. Without treatment, the sore will generally heal without scarring within six weeks.

The secondary stage of syphilis consists of a rash on the soles of the feet or the palms of the hands. This stage generally starts around six weeks after exposure and can last for up to three months. Individuals with secondary syphilis notice a rosy colored rash on the soles of the feet and palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Similar to the primary stage, secondary syphilis symptoms will disappear without treatment.

The final stage of the disease is latent syphilis. In this stage, the disease remains dormant without symptoms. When the disease remains untreated, it can cause serious problems with the nerves, brain, and heart. If not properly treated, the disease can cause impotence, paralysis, deafness, blindness, and dementia. In the worst case scenario, untreated syphilis can cause death.

How is syphilis diagnosed?

For the most part, syphilis is easily diagnosed with an inexpensive blood test. The test is generally quick and can be taken at the doctor's office or health clinic. However, it may be difficult for a doctor to diagnose the disease based solely on symptoms. Symptoms of the disease can be confused with other diseases, disappear entirely, or heal without treatment.

In order to properly diagnose the disease, you should visit the doctor’s office or health care clinic when a sore is present in the mouth or genital area. It is also important to undergo regular tests for sexually transmitted diseases if you are sexually active.

Laboratory tests also help to diagnose syphilis. Latent syphilis does not have symptoms and requires these laboratory tests for diagnosis. There are two different types of laboratory tests. As mentioned above, the first type of test is a blood test. The second type of test identifies bacteria under a microscope, using a sample of the tissue from the sore. In some cases, the doctor may test spinal fluid if he or she believes neurosyphilis, or an infection of the brain and spinal cord, is a possibility.

Last Updated: February 11, 2016