Syphilis and Cancer

Syphilis is a bacterial infection most often spread by sexual and intimate contact between people. This disease begins as a painless sore located on your genitals, rectum, or mouth. This disease is spread person to person by skin or mucous membrane contact with the sores. After the infection has taken hold, syphilis bacteria can lie dormant in the body for years before becoming active and making symptoms more known. If syphilis is caught early it can be cured, sometimes even with one dose of penicillin.

When syphilis is left untreated, it can cause significant damage to many parts of the body. Syphilis can cause damage to your brain, heart, organ systems and can be passed from a mother to her unborn child. Syphilis can cause death.

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

The symptoms that you deal with will depend on which type of syphilis you have, and which stage the disease is presenting with. These are the main types of syphilis and the symptoms that they bring.

Primary syphilis begins with a small sore called a chancre. This sore will appear on the body where ever the bacteria was first introduced into the body. More than one chancre may develop, or only one may ever be present. These sores develop about three weeks after exposure, and many people do not notice because it is painless and hidden in the pubic region. These sores will heal on their own in two to six weeks.

Secondary syphilis occurs after the initial sores or chancres have healed and a rash begins to form on your abdomen, which spreads to cover your entire body. This can include the soles of your feet and palms of your hands. This rash is not normally itchy and may come with wart-like sores on the mouth or genital area. Some will experience hair loss, fever, sore throat, muscle aches, and swollen lymph nodes. These symptoms may disappear, linger for weeks, or come and go over the years.

Latent syphilis occurs when you are not treated for syphilis, and the disease moves from secondary to the latent stage when no symptoms are present. This stage can happen for years, and some signs and symptoms may never reoccur. However, if the symptoms do persist and return, the disease moves into the tertiary or third stage.

Tertiary syphilis happens in fifteen to thirty-five percent of those infected with syphilis who do not get treatment. This stage is dangerous and can cause serious bodily complications interfering with your nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, joints, brain and entire body. These problems can surface years later or continue for years after you are infected.

-Congenital syphilis is the type passed on to babies from their pregnant mothers. This can happen in-utero or after birth, as syphilis can be passed through the placenta and the blood. Most newborns with congenital syphilis have no symptoms, except for the possible rash on the palms of their hands and soles of their feet. As time progresses, symptoms may include hearing loss and deafness, teeth and oral deformities or saddle nose. Saddle nose is a condition where the bridge of the nose collapses and sinks in to the face.

What are the causes and risk factors of syphilis?

Syphilis is caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum. It is most commonly passed from person to person through contact with the infected person’s sore during sexual or intimate activity. The bacteria enter your body through small cuts or openings in the skin, or through the mucous membranes. Syphilis is contagious during it’s primary and secondary stages and in the later latent period.

Less often, syphilis may spread through direct unprotected close contact with an active, open sore or from a mother to her unborn baby through the placental wall. Kissing and massaging have been linked to the transmission of syphilis. This disease cannot be spread by using the same bathtub, clothing, eating utensils, or toilets as an infected person. Swimming pools and hot tubs are also safe to use. Once syphilis has been treated and cured, it does not reoccur on its own. You can become re-infected if you are exposed to syphilis again.

The risk factors for being infected with syphilis are:

  • If you are infected with HIV, which is the virus that causes AIDS, you are at a greater risk.
  • If you have sexual activity with multiple partners.
  • If you are a man who has sexual intercourse or activity with other men.
  • If you engage in unprotected sexual intercourse or activity.

While these factors do increase the risk, being a sexually active adult automatically opens your risk factors to any sexually transmitted infection. Safe sex is always the best sex. Use protection whenever and however you can.

I have heard the complications can be very dangerous. What can happen if I do not treat my syphilis?

Foregoing treatment for syphilis can lead to permanent damage done throughout your body. This disease also increases you risk for becoming infected with the HIV virus, and for women, can be catastrophic during pregnancy. Treatment can help to prevent future damage and nix the virus, although treatments cannot correct the damage done if left untreated.

These conditions often occur in those with a syphilis infection:

Tumors and small bumps called ‘gummas’ can develop on your skin, bones, liver, or any other organ in the late stages of the disease. These usually come and go without treatment.

Neurological problems can be very extreme and could include:

  • Meningitis
  • Stroke
  • Hearing loss
  • Dementia
  • Visual problems and disturbances
  • Sexual Dysfunction
  • Bladder incontinence
  • Loss of pain and temperature control sensations in the body
  • Sudden, electric-like pains throughout the body

Cardiovascular issues can include inflammation of the aorta, which is the body’s major artery, or bulging aneurysms. Syphilis can also damage the heart valves.

HIV infected people or those who have full-blown AIDS with genital ulcers and sores have a two to five-fold increased risk of seeing their syphilis morph quickly into the tertiary stage, which can cause much faster bodily chaos.

How can I prevent becoming infected with syphilis?

There is no vaccine for syphilis, so the only real protection is active prevention. Follow these suggestions when you can:

  • Use latex condoms and other forms of protection. Condoms can reduce the risk of contracting syphilis, but only if the condom is covering the sores brought on by the disease.
  • Avoid recreational drugs like alcohol or other street drugs that can cloud your judgment and lead to unsafe sexual practices and rash decision making.
  • Abstain from having multiple partners or be monogamous in your relationships.

The only way to truly avoid syphilis is to not have sexual intercourse, which is not a feasible answer for most. Monogamous sexual activity with a partner who has been tested for any sexually transmitted diseases is the best course of action to take.

Pregnant women are now screened for this disease in the early stages of pregnancy to have the time needed to provide treatment to lessen the chances of spreading this disease to their unborn child. This disease can be deadly to infants.

How will my doctor treat my syphilis?

The preferred treatment for syphilis in all stages is usually penicillin, which is an antibiotic medication that can kill the organisms that cause syphilis. If you are allergic to penicillin, your doctor will suggest another type of antibiotic. In many cases, one injection of this medication can stop the disease from progressing if you have had the infection for less than one year. If you have had the disease longer, additional doses may be required.

The first days of your treatment you may experience a mild reaction to the medication fighting against the bacteria. These symptoms can include chills, fever, nausea, body pains, and headaches. This is called Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction and is fairly common.

After your treatment, your doctor will still do periodic blood tests and exams to make sure you are still working on eradicating the disease from your body. They may advise you to avoid all sexual contact until treatment is completed and blood tests indicate the infection has been cured. They may also suggest that you notify all of your previous sexual partners to be tested and treated for any sign of sexually transmitted diseases, including the HIV infection.

Does having syphilis increase my risk for developing cancer? And vice-versa?

Yes, having any sort of sexually transmitted disease has been linked to the increase of certain types of cancer and can make you more susceptible to becoming infected with more STIs. Penial cancer and cervical cancer are the two main types that have the strongest link to syphilis. These cancer cases often arise in cases where syphilis has not been treated and has been left uncontrolled.

In cases of syphilis discovered in the rectum, this can often be mistaken as rectal cancer as the signs and symptoms are very similar.

If you think that you have been exposed to syphilis or any other sexually transmitted disease or infection, do not hesitate to contact your doctor immediately and begin testing. If you are not comfortable visiting your doctor, consider contacting your local health department or free clinic to run the necessary tests to get you going on treatment.

Resources Used:

Cancer Therapy Advisor



Reclaiming Intimacy

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