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Syphilis: A sexually Transmitted Disease that is a Danger to Teens

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Teenagers account for 36.9% of all patients with sexually transmitted diseases due to their lack of understanding with regard to sexual education.
  • When not treated properly, syphilis can place numerous bodily organs at risk, potentially causing blindness, deafness, abnormal facial structure, dementia or mental health issues, as well as full or partial paralysis, and if the infection spreads to the heart, it could lead to heart failure and death.
  • Those who engage in unprotected sex should attend annual sexual health checkups, whether or not they display any symptoms.

 

It is shocking that such a dangerous sexually transmitted disease like syphilis is making a comeback, with teens of high school to university age, or those aged between 15-24 years, responsible for the most serious outbreaks. (Link: www.bbc.com/thai/thailand-48199586)

The current outbreak of syphilis is most common among those attending high schools and universities, meaning youths aged between 15-24 years old, due to this group reaching reproductive age and making their first foray into exploring their sexuality. It is this group that often has the least sexual education, yet has the freedom to lead their lives as they wish, especially with regard to sexual encounters with new people or one night stands. Moreover, it has been found that teenagers are unlikely to use condoms when having sex, with the misconception that they are not at risk if they do not change their sexual partners frequently, leading to them not using adequate protection. Actually, the truth is that any sex not involving the use of a condom, places both parties at risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.

In addition to the aforementioned high risk group, syphilis can also be transferred from mother to fetus via the amniotic fluid if the pregnant woman’s infection is not properly treated. This can then lead to various abnormalities affecting the child, including a cleft palate, blindness, decreased brain size or even death as a result of heart failure.

Syphilis results from the Treponema pallidum bacterial infection, which has an incubation period of around 2-4 weeks to 3 months, and prefers moist areas of the body. It is considered a sexually transmitted disease as it can spread through direct contact, such as through sexual intercourse or contact with bodily secretions. However, it can also spread through the transfer of blood from a pregnant woman to her unborn child.

There have been numerous dangerous syphilis outbreaks in the past. The third stage of this condition is particularly harmful as it can lead to blindness and abnormalities in the facial structure, with severe cases affecting the central nervous system, possibly resulting in mental health issues. If proper treatment is not administered, a syphilis infection could lead to loss of life.

Symptoms

Symptoms of syphilis can be categorized into the following 4 stages:

  • Stage 1: Small sores measuring around 2-4mm that appear on the genitalia, lips, tongue and nipples, which expands and bursts over time causing wounds. Although these symptoms are painless, if the infection is left untreated, it could expand into the lymph nodes of the groin. This stage of the infection is mostly asymptomatic, with any wounds or lymphatic nodes symptoms going away over time, resulting in patients underestimating the severity of their condition.
  • Stage 2: After approximately 2-3 weeks of the infection’s initial stage, syphilis begins to spread from the lymph nodes into the bloodstream, resulting in hives throughout the body, especially on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, although these do not itch. This stage is often called the “flowering period,” and some cases produce rotten flesh and the hemorrhaging of lymphatic fluid that is contaminated with the syphilis infection. This is therefore the stage at which the infection most easily spreads. Even then, some may still not yet display any of the aforementioned symptoms, merely experiencing a fever, sore throat or aches and pains. Syphilis is capable of lying dormant in the body for years at a time, only becoming identifiable if the patient undergoes a blood test which will show a highly positive reaction for the infection.
  • Stage 3: Known as the latent period, this is a time when the infection is asymptomatic but mothers who have contracted the disease remain at risk of transferring the disease onto their unborn child throughout this stage.
  • Stage 4: After the infection has been present in the body for 2 – 30 years without being properly treated, syphilis will begin to destroy various bodily organs, potentially causing blindness, deafness, facial structure abnormalities, dementia, mental health issues, partial or full paralysis and, if allowed to deteriorate further, heart failure and eventually death.

Treatment and prevention

  • Wear a condom each and every time you have sex.
  • Do not be promiscuous, and avoid sexual contact with those infected with syphilis.
  • Be sure to attend a doctor’s appointment should you experience any wounds on your genitalia, especially after sex, in order to diagnose the true cause.
  • In confirmed cases of syphilis, whether or not symptoms are displayed, patients should be sure to attend all doctor appointments, as the disease is capable of entering the bloodstream when left untreated for an extended period of time.
  • Doctors will usually treat syphilis with high doses of penicillin antibiotic medication, with patients requiring regular injections from their doctor. Failure to adhere to this strict antibiotic course of treatment is a major cause of unsuccessful treatment for the condition.

Although there are continuous advancements in the field of medicine, syphilis remains a silent threat for which an outbreak remains a constant risk. One of the main reasons for this is that people are not paying close enough attention to practicing safe sex through the use of condoms, nor are they being as careful when selecting sexual partners, often engaging in sexual acts with no prior planning involved, and then failing to attend regular sexual health checkups. Another reason is that infected patients often display no signs of their illness until it has reached a critical stage, meaning that they may have been carrying and spreading the disease without their knowledge.

Hence, those who do not practice safe sex should be sure to attend annual sexual health checkups, whether or not they display any symptoms, because while syphilis may seem like a fearsome condition, it is possible to treat it successfully.


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Wiriyaporn Chanrachakul, M.D. Summary: Pediatrics Pediatric Infectious Diseases