The most common syphilis tests detect antibodies in the blood that are produced in response to a T. pallidum infection. Some methods that are used less commonly directly detect the bacterium or its genetic material (DNA).
Syphilis is easily treated with antibiotics but can cause severe health problems if left untreated. An infected mother can also pass the disease to her unborn child, with serious and potentially fatal consequences for the baby. (See Common Questions below)
There are several possible stages with syphilis:
Primary syphilis—the primary stage begins about 2-3 weeks after being infected. One or more chancres appear, usually on the part of the body exposed to the sexual partner's chancre, such as on the penis or vagina. However, the chancre is usually painless and may go unnoticed, especially if it is in the rectum or on the cervix, and disappears within 4-6 weeks, healing regardless of whether the infected person is treated or not.
Secondary syphilis—if primary syphilis is left untreated, secondary syphilis may occur from 6 weeks to 6 months after the chancre first appears. It is marked by a skin rash that often is rough, red, and spotted, appearing frequently on the palms of the hands and the bottoms of the feet (an unusual place for most other causes of rashes) and that usually does not itch. There may be other symptoms as well, such as fever, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes ("glands"), sore throat, and body aches.
Late, tertiary syphilis—if untreated, secondary syphilis may continue into a latent stage, during which an infected person has no symptoms but continues to have the infection, and this stage can last for years. If still untreated, about 15% of people will develop the complications of late, or tertiary, syphilis. In these cases, the bacteria can damage the heart, eyes, brain, nervous system, bones, joints, or almost any other part of the body. When the central nervous system is affected, it is called neurosyphilis. Tertiary syphilis can last for years, with the final stage leading to mental illness, blindness, other neurological problems, heart disease, and death.
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