Syphilis Symptoms in Women

Undergoing the symptoms of syphilis can be a time of anxiety, but there's no need to panic if this condition treated in time. However, since many of us aren't aware of its progression or the likely ways it can be contracted, it is better to take the necessary measures to protect yourself as well as others beforehand...
Syphilis, is caused by a bacterium called Treponema Pallidum, and classifies as a sexually transmitted disease. It is usually transferred through sexual contact or even from a mother to her fetus within the womb. Ignoring the symptoms can cause severe repercussions that are resistless by the body, like damaged brain nerves and tissue. It can be caused easily when a person comes into contact with lesions evident on an infected person's body when engaging in vaginal, anal, or oral sex. It is said that men are more susceptible to syphilis than women. It comes during the age bracket of 15 - 39 years among both, men and women. Treponema pallidum bacterium are spiral-like in nature, and are 6 - 15 micrometers long and 0.25 micrometers in diameter.

The bacteria cannot survive too long in outside conditions (airborne) and necessitates one to be in direct contact with infectious lesions. These bacterium rapidly circulate through mucous membranes after penetrating the skin, simultaneously spreading itself in blood vessels and the lymphatic system. It can be viewed only through dark field microscopy, given its small size.

Signs and Symptoms of Syphilis in Women

The four broad stages of syphilis characterized by its advancement are:
  • Primary
  • Secondary
  • Latent (Hidden)
  • Tertiary (Last)
Stage 1
The first stage, known as primary syphilis, is when the infected area creates a highly infectious sore, known as a Chancre. This is usually a stiff, small and round protrusion that doesn't hurt when touched. This spot appears where the bacteria has pierced the skin area on one's body. This ulcer-like bulge is highly contagious and lasts up to 5 weeks and can heal on its own. The ulcer is saturated with bacteria which can be transmitted on contact. The use of condoms cancels out its effectiveness if the ulcer is present away from the main genital area; this also applies when contact is made with the ulcer present in the mouth region if two were to kiss. The time between exposure to the contagious ulcer and the start of the first symptoms can range from 10-90 days.

Stage 2
The second stage, known as secondary syphilis, is when the infected surface of the skin area forms a rash-like appearance that isn't itchy. The chancre can last up to 4-10 weeks or could be the signs of it fading away. Spots can appear on the back of your feet or the palms of your hands, seemingly rough like that of a coin's surface. Variations on the characteristics of these ulcers range from white patches in one's mouth to dark circular patches or those that resemble chickenpox. Symptoms later in this stage include genital warts, headaches, weight loss, sore throat, hair loss in patchy sections on one's head, random acne breakout, feeling lethargic, and swelling of glands. Other skin lesions that are witnessed in secondary syphilis are condylomata latum and patchy alopecia. Condylomata latum aren't painful but are highly infectious gray-white lesions that develop in warm, damp areas of the body.

Stage 3
If not diagnosed on time, the infection builds up to the third stage, which is a latent stage where the symptoms aren't discernible and are no longer transmittable. The bacterium remains within the body and starts attacking vital organs. The internal damage done to the body can be witnessed even years later. These include dementia, impotence, heart vessels bloating due to blockages, blindness, paralysis, knee joint fractures and even tumors; these are serious enough to result in death. Gummatous syphilis or granulomatous lesions, called gummas, are prone to appear in the skin layer, bones or liver but can still affect other organs. These lesions though are non-infectious, and can be fibrotic in nature, that is, excessive fibrous tissue in the connective tissue in the organs.

Types of Syphilis and Their Characteristics

Syphilis tends to branch out into many variations of what the disease can do, that correspond to damage done on the body. Some of these are explained in the following table.

Cardiovascular SyphilisCan occur 10 years after the initial stage. This causes chronic inflammatory degeneration of the vasa vasorum, that is, the penetrating vessels that nourish large artery walls.
Meningovascular SyphilisIt results in the damage of the blood vessels of the meninges, spinal cord and brain. This can lead to neurological impairments. Disruption in the dorsal roots of the spinal cord can lead to loss of sensations like pain, temperature, and areflexia, which is the inability to use one's reflexes. Impairment of memory, personality changes, psychotic behavior and loss of speech are also destructive symptoms.
Congenital SyphilisThis causes the bacteria to pass through the placental barrier affecting the fetus in the womb of the mother, usually resulting in stillbirth. Termed 'Snuffles', this leads to mucopurulent rhinitis (inflammation), which involves the nasal mucosae - the mucus-secreting membrane lining the organ.
MiscellaneousSyphilis then advances, leading to teeth and bone deformities which include Hutchinson's teeth, where the upper incisors are spaced wide apart and jagged; saddle nose, where the nasal septum deteriorates; Clutton's joints, where the knee joints start to swell up; and mulberry molars, where the teeth are pointed higher than their normal elevation.

Diagnostic Measures

To diagnose if one has syphilis, there are many ways in which it can be recognized by a doctor, done by a series of tests. These include:
  • Swab / Scraping Test
  • Syphilis Blood Testing
  • RPR Test (Rapid Plasma Reagin Test)
  • VDRL Test (Veneral Disease Research Laboratory Test)
  • CSF Syphilis Test (Cerebrospinal Fluid; fluid that surrounds the spinal cord)
  • Lumbar Puncture (Spinal Tap) Test - to check if syphilis has spread through the CSF
  • Swab of Chancre - during the first and secondary syphilis stages
  • Syphilis Antibody Evaluation Test - Treponema Pallidum Hemagglutination Assay (TPHA) AND Fluorescent Treponemal Antibody-Absorption Test (FTA-ABS)
It is important to have frequent blood tests to make sure that the STD's agents have been completely removed, and aren't multiplying, or present in the bloodstream. If diagnosed on time the spread of syphilis can be stunted, but if it has reached the tertiary stage, then effects are, unfortunately, irreversible.

Symptoms of Syphilis in Women Who Are Pregnant

Women experiencing symptoms during pregnancy show similar symptoms to that of other women; with the added risk of infecting newborns as well. Women expecting can experience miscarriages, stillbirths and even premature births, if suffering from syphilis. Babies with syphilis may experience the following symptoms:
  • Skin sores
  • Seizures
  • Fever
  • Swollen liver and spleen
  • Jaundice
  • Anemia
  • Slow development
  • Death due to severe damage done by the disease
To avoid these dire circumstances, one needs to be informative about the condition and know how to take precautions, like not coming into contact with sores / lesions, etc. Though condoms can be made habitual during intercourse, this isn't hundred percent reliable because of lesion placement. Constant checkups are compulsory to deflect any further advancing of the disease. One should incorporate checkups during parental care not only to avoid infecting infants, but to stop the symptoms from developing. Syphilis, if attended to on time can curb the repercussions of ignoring these vital signs.
By Naomi Sarah
Published: 8/2/2010
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