The corkscrew-shaped bacteria of syphilis penetrate the skin of the vulva and within 30 minutes reach the glands in the groin. Thirty-six hours after infection, the bacteria have doubled in number. They double again every 30 hours. It takes an average of 3 weeks (10 to 50 days) for the first symptoms to appear. By then, there are countless bacteria in the bloodstream.
The first symptom is a chancre, an ulcer that starts as a pimple and then develops into an open sore with a hard rim. It is painless and self-healing. Once the sore disappears, bacteria travel in the blood, rapidly multiplying. Second stage syphilis occurs 2 to 6 weeks later.
The symptoms include a skin rash over the body, swollen glands, and a flu-like condition; but often the disease is asymptomatic. Syphilis continues to wreak its havoc in vital organs. In later years, the tertiary (third) stage is devastating: heart and brain disorders, joint inflammation, and sometimes early death.
Only about 10 percent of women who get chancres notice them. They can be hidden in the folds of the labia, under the hood of the clitoris, inside the vagina or rectum, on the cervix itself. The bacteria enter through any tiny skin lesion. The sores can appear anywhere, the most usual places being the mouth, nostril, tongue, even the finger.
Avoid sexual contact if sores appear on any skin parts. The same applies to a partner.
Antibiotics destroy the bacteria of syphilis. Regular blood tests are necessary for the next two years to check for lingering germs. Keep all follow-up appointments to ensure that the disease has finally gone. Syphilis is 3 times more common in men than women; it is rare in female homosexuals.
It can be passed to the fetus after the 20th week of pregnancy, so a blood test for syphilis is now a routine part of prenatal care.