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How to Prevent Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Preventing Syphilis

Syphilis has four different stages, and the early stages have symptoms that are often easy to miss. Learn more about syphilis here.

Syphilis Basics

Syphilis is an infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. Although syphilis is curable in its early stages with antibiotics, the disease's oft-silent symptoms mimic a number of other less-troubling diseases and can progress untreated for decades until damage becomes irreversible.

Syphilis is spread through direct contact with a syphilis sore -- bacteria invade through skin abrasions or mucous membranes in the mouth or genital area. You cannot get syphilis from a toilet seat, towel, doorknob, or any other shared item.

According to the National Institutes of Health, syphilis typically has four stages, and the early symptoms are easy to miss. About two to three weeks after exposure to T. pallidum, an ulcer crops up at the very place where the bacterium entered the body. This painless, small, round, and firm ulcer is called a chancre (pronounced "shanker") and appears outside or inside the body. It goes away on its own in about three to six weeks.

About two to three months after exposure, the second phase begins with a nonitchy skin rash on the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, or other areas of the body. Symptoms mimic a flulike illness and include swollen lymph glands, a sore throat, fatigue, and headaches. Other signs may include weight loss, hair loss, aching joints, and lesions in the mouth or genital area.

The third phase occurs months after exposure. There usually are not visible symptoms during this latent stage, but the infection can be diagnosed with blood tests.

The last syphilis phase can be deadly. At the least, syphilis bacteria cause irreversible damage to the brain, eyes, heart, nervous system, bones, joints, and other parts of the body. The damage can result in mental illness, blindness, deafness, heart disease, brain damage, or spinal cord damage. All of this can occur two to three decades after that first small ulcer seemed to disappear on its own.

Who's at Risk for Syphilis

Anyone who is sexually active and having unprotected sex is at risk for contracting syphilis, but young adults have a higher syphilis rate. In rare cases, the infection also can be passed from mother to infant through the placenta during pregnancy, causing a disease known as congenital syphilis.

Defensive Measures Against Syphilis

If you are sexually active, then having mutually monogamous sex with an uninfected partner is the best way to prevent syphilis. Remember, syphilis can be transmitted even when people do not have visible signs of the disease. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Know your risk. If you are engaging in risky sexual behaviors, such as having vaginal, oral, or anal sex with multiple partners or having unprotected sex, you should be tested on a regular basis for syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections.
  • Beware the bump. If you have a bothersome bump or a suspicious sore, go straight to your physician. Early diagnosis and treatment is the best way to attack syphilis.
  • Talk about it. Have open and honest communication with your sexual partner and talk about any history of sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Keep it covered. Although latex condoms are not foolproof, they help reduce risk. But according to the CDC, condoms lubricated with spermicides are no more effective than other lubricated condoms in protecting against the transmission of STDs.
  • Protect your pregnancy. All pregnant women should be tested for syphilis to prevent congenital syphilis. Syphilis can cause miscarriage, premature birth, stillbirth, or death of newborn babies. Infants who contract congenital syphilis can have deformities, developmental delays, or seizures. The damage caused by syphilis can continue unseen in infants as they grow and lead to the problems of late-stage syphilis, including damage to bones, teeth, eyes, ears, and the brain.

As you can see, sexually transmitted diseases can be prevented, if you have all the facts and know how to protect yourself. Read up on the symptoms of STDs and be sure to always protect yourself if you are not in a committed, sexually monogamous relationship.

Laurie L. Dove is an award winning Kansas-based journalist and author whose work has been published internationally. A dedicated consumer advocate, Dove specializes in writing about health, parenting, fitness and travel. An active member of the National Federation of Press Women, Dove also is the former owner of a parenting magazine and a weekly newspaper. This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.