Syphilis, a bacterial infection transmitted through sexual contact, goes through four distinct stages, each of which is associated with different symptoms. The earlier the symptoms of syphilis infection are identified, the better the prognosis for the patient, as a timely administration of antibiotics can often clear the disease very successfully. People who are sexually active should receive regular screening for sexually transmitted infections, including syphilis, so that early intervention can be provided in the event that an infection is acquired.
In the primary or first stage, the patient develops a distinctive sore called a chancre at the site of the infection. The sore is usually firm, raised, and round, and the lymph nodes in the surrounding area are often swollen. Chancres can occur on the genitalia, in the groin, and around the mouth. This classic symptom of syphilis usually clears on its own within a few weeks, but the syphilis itself is not gone. Instead, the bacteria are rapidly multiplying in the body, and when their numbers rise enough, the patient will develop secondary syphilis.
Secondary syphilis, which occurs several weeks after infection, can be very severe. The symptoms of syphilis which has reached the secondary stage include a dark red rash, the development of additional sores, hair loss, swelling of the lymph nodes, headaches, loss of appetite, aches and pains, and a fever. When these symptoms resolve, the patient goes into the latent stage of syphilis, in which the bacteria are present in the body, but no symptoms of syphilis are experienced. During the latent stage, the patient is not infectious.
Periodic relapses of syphilis can be experienced during the latent stage, usually associated with the development of sores. Eventually, the patient will develop the final stage of syphilis, known historically as tertiary syphilis. The symptoms of syphilis in the final stage include permanent sores which will not resolve, along with neurological symptoms caused by bacterial attacks on the nervous system. The patient often develops cardiovascular symptoms as well, as a result of the systemic damage caused by the bacteria.
Symptoms of syphilis are the same in men and women. This disease was once fatal, causing a prolonged and unpleasant death as the bacteria ate away at the patient's nervous system. Today, it can be treated with antibiotics if it is caught early, making it critically important to recognize the symptoms of syphilis. If a patient develops a chancre, he or she should go to a doctor and request testing for syphilis.