The effects of syphilis complications on the body in men and women can be very serious and the consequences can be fatal if not treated.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that develops mostly due to unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected partner. It is caused by the spirochete bacteria called Treponema pallidum.
If left untreated, Treponema pallidum stays in the body indefinitely. Individuals who have syphilis remain infected for life unless they take complete treatment.
If left untreated, serious syphilis complications that can occur, are what transpire during the tertiary stage, which sets after a long time, 10 to 15 years after the initial infection. The heart, blood vessels, bones, joints, brain, and eyes get damaged.
Early treatment with antibiotics can prevent complications. But, if you start treatment after organs or tissues have been damaged, the damages are irreversible even with treatment.
Dangers of untreated syphilis
The most severe complications usually arise during the last or the tertiary stage of syphilis.
The third stage complications of untreated syphilis can have dangerous effects on the major systems of the body. This is the tertiary stage which can set in 10 to 15 years after the infection first set in.
You can attract diseases such as HIV, Gummas (nonmalignant growths), diseases of the nervous system, cardiovascular complications, Pituitary gland disorders, and more.
The complications on pregnancy can prove fatal to the fetus and the newborn. The infected pregnant mother can pass on the infection to the fetus and even to the newborn after birth giving rise to undesirable effects on the fetus and the newborn.
Deaths due to syphilis complications are known to happen, but at the same time, this disease can be cured by a single shot of benzathine penicillin.
Syphilis is easily curable with antibiotics in the early stages. But, the damage caused during its late stage cannot be changed or healed – meaning the damage caused to organs in the later years of tertiary syphilis is irreversible.
The major complications of syphilis especially those that develop during the last stage are long-term and permanent.
Early and late complications present as follows:
Increased risk of HIV
A person infected with syphilis is more likely to get infected with HIV. This risk increases 3 to 5 times. The reason is that the ulcer of syphilis can bleed especially due to friction during sexual activity. Sex with an HIV-infected person can easily allow the AIDS virus to get into the bloodstream.
Normally, the chances of getting an HIV infection due to a single sexual act with an HIV-infected person are very low. But, with the presence of a syphilitic chancre, both men and women have a higher risk of contracting HIV, which is about three to five times higher than in adults who don’t have syphilis.
Gummas or growths
Gummatous syphilis presents as inflammatory nonmalignant growths that can involve the liver, bones, and skin. Other organs too can get involved including the stomach and eyes.
Gummas often arise in the palate and the nose. Other sites include the face, scalp, and legs.
These gummas occur because of the failing immune response of the body to the spirochete syphilis bacteria. They can be single or multiple. They resolve after treatment.
Nervous system complications
Neurosyphilis develops when the syphilis bacteria infect the nervous system. It can cause sudden, intense pains, which may occur in various organs, mostly the stomach, which may cause vomiting. You may experience similar pains in your rectum, bladder, and larynx
It can present as syphilitic meningitis, meningovascular meningitis, general paresis, and tabes dorsalis.
Stroke, visual disturbances or blindness, deafness, and dementia are some of the other complications seen due to neurosyphilis.
Nervous system damage due to syphilis can also cause incontinence and impotence in men.
Neurosyphilis is one of the most feared complications. It can cause insanity, paralysis, and death.
Cardiovascular complications usually arise between 10 and 25 years after the initial syphilis infection.
Cardiovascular syphilis can give rise to aortic aneurysms and can damage the heart valves. Other blood vessels can also get damaged.
Pituitary gland involvement
On rare occasions, syphilis can cause hypopituitarism in which there is reduced secretion of the hormones normally produced by the pituitary gland, which is situated at the base of the brain.
In adults, this can cause premature aging, and in children, it can cause dwarfism.
This is a relatively rare complication, which involves the stomach, and usually occurs in people who are in their 20s to 40s. It can cause pain, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and weight loss.
Syphilis complications in the fetus during pregnancy
An infected pregnant woman can pass on the syphilis infection to the fetus through the blood via the placenta. Such infection passed to the newborn is called congenital or neonatal syphilis.
Complications of congenital syphilis include increased incidence of stillbirths, abortion, miscarriages, and death of the newborn within a few days after delivery.
Effects of syphilis on newborn
Untreated babies with congenital syphilis can have congenital deformities, seizures, delayed development of milestones, blindness, swollen liver, jaundice, enlarged spleen, and anemia.
The newborn develops notched and peg-shaped teeth called Hutchinson’s teeth. Weight gain may not take place and the newborn may fail to survive.
Syphilis and mortality
Untreated syphilis has a mortality rate of as high as 8% to 58% with the death rate being higher in males.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) findings of 2008, about 2 million pregnant women worldwide acquire the disease every year. This causes about 50% of pregnancies to result in stillbirth or prenatal death.
However, according to the Journal of the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association, adults now rarely die from syphilis in the United States. Nevertheless, neonatal syphilis deaths increase when this disease increases among women.
If you have had unprotected sex with a new partner or more importantly with multiple partners, or have been exposed to the syphilis risk factors, you should get yourself thoroughly tested. A better alternative will be to follow the preventive tips, which can prevent you from getting this disease, which is so easy to catch.