Syphilis bacteria are responsible for the development of the sexually transmitted disease known simply as syphilis. Originating with exposure to the Treponema pallidum bacterium, syphilis bacteria spread through direct contact with an infected individual who is experiencing active lesions. The infection may also be spread congenitally or by receiving blood from an infected individual. Prompt and appropriate treatment, which usually involves the aggressive administration of a strong, single-dose antibiotic, is essential to ensure a good prognosis. If left untreated, syphilis bacteria may spread throughout the body inducing widespread organ impairment or failure and, in some cases, death.
Due to the sensitive nature of the Treponema pallidum bacterium's composition, only direct contact with infected bodily fluids or dermal exposure with active lesions may trigger infection. Transmission of the infection most frequently happens through unprotected, direct sexual contact with an infected individual. Infection may also occur with the administration of syphilis bacteria-laden blood during transfusion. The congenital transmission of syphilis bacteria is possible, so pregnant women are often placed on a penicillin regimen to eliminate infection. Newborns born with the syphilis bacteria are also given antibiotic treatment to eliminate the presence of infection and reduce his or her risk for complication development.
Infants with congenital syphilis may begin to present with symptoms of active infection within the first three months of life. Initial signs of syphilis include dermal lesions, abdominal distention due to organ inflammation, and fever. If left untreated, syphilitic symptoms may impair development and sensory function, induce seizures, or cause premature death.
Individuals who acquire syphilis infection experience a progressive development of signs and symptoms that may start to present within four months of transmission. The initial sign of infection usually involves the formation of a painless lesion at the site of exposure, meaning if the bacterium entered through an abrasion on an individual’s lip, then that is where the lesion will present. As the infection progresses, symptomatic individuals frequently develop flu-like symptoms, including fever, sore throat, and widespread achiness. With time, episodic symptom flares may occur and worsen if left untreated.
Asymptomatic individuals — those who do not exhibit any symptoms at all — with active infection who do not receive prompt, appropriate treatment often develop what is known as latent syphilis. Considered to be a concealed presentation of the syphilis bacteria, latent syphilis often serves as a precursor to what is referred to as tertiary syphilis. Individuals with this late-stage presentation of the infection are at an increased risk for organ impairment or failure.
The presence of syphilis bacteria is generally detected with the administration of a blood test or a skin biopsy, where a portion of the active lesion is obtained and sent for laboratory analysis. An early diagnosis and the administration of appropriate treatment are essential to the successful elimination of infection. Individuals who are diagnosed in the earliest stages of infection are usually given an aggressive, high-dose antibiotic to eliminate the bacterium's presence. Those who receive treatment during later stages of infection may undergo follow-up injections and testing to ensure they are responding to treatment.