The Syphilis

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a) Photo of red, open sores on a penis. B) Photo of brown spots on the palm of the hands. C) Photo of a red, open sore on the nose.
(a) This ulcerated sore is a hard chancre caused by syphilis. (b) This individual has a secondary syphilis rash on the hands. (c) Tertiary syphilis produces lesions called gummas, such as this one located on the nose. (credit a, b, c: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

Syphilis is spread through direct physical (generally sexual) contact, and is caused by the gram-negative spirochete Treponema pallidumT. pallidum has a relatively simple genome and lacks lipopolysaccharide endotoxin characteristic of gram-negative bacteria. However, it does contain lipoproteins that trigger an immune response in the host, causing tissue damage that may enhance the pathogen’s ability to disseminate while evading the host immune system.

After entering the body, T. pallidum moves rapidly into the bloodstream and other tissues. If not treated effectively, syphilis progresses through three distinct stages: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary syphilis appears as a single lesion on the cervix, penis, or anus within 10 to 90 days of transmission. Such lesions contain many T. pallidum cells and are highly infectious. The lesion, called a hard chancre, is initially hard and painless, but it soon develops into an ulcerated sore. Localized lymph node swelling may occur as well. In some cases, these symptoms may be relatively mild, and the lesion may heal on its own within two to six weeks. Because the lesions are painless and often occur in hidden locations (e.g., the cervix or anus), infected individuals sometimes do not notice them.

The secondary stage generally develops once the primary chancre has healed or begun to heal. Secondary syphilis is characterized by a rash that affects the skin and mucous membranes of the mouth, vagina, or anus. The rash often begins on the palms or the soles of the feet and spreads to the trunk and the limbs. The rash may take many forms, such as macular or papular. On mucous membranes, it may manifest as mucus patches or white, wartlike lesions called condylomata lata. The rash may be accompanied by malaise, fever, and swelling of lymph nodes. Individuals are highly contagious in the secondary stage, which lasts two to six weeks and is recurrent in about 25% of cases.

After the secondary phase, syphilis can enter a latent phase, in which there are no symptoms but microbial levels remain high. Blood tests can still detect the disease during latency. The latent phase can persist for years.

Tertiary syphilis, which may occur 10 to 20 years after infection, produces the most severe symptoms and can be fatal. Granulomatous lesions called gummas may develop in a variety of locations, including mucous membranes, bones, and internal organs. Gummas can be large and destructive, potentially causing massive tissue damage. The most deadly lesions are those of the cardiovascular system (cardiovascular syphilis) and the central nervous system (neurosyphilis). Cardiovascular syphilis can result in a fatal aortic aneurysm (rupture of the aorta) or coronary stenosis (a blockage of the coronary artery). Damage to the central nervous system can cause dementia, personality changes, seizures, general paralysis, speech impairment, loss of vision and hearing, and loss of bowel and bladder control.

Syphilis is spread through direct physical (generally sexual) contact, and is caused by the gram-negative spirochete Treponema pallidumT. pallidum has a relatively simple genome and lacks lipopolysaccharide endotoxin characteristic of gram-negative bacteria. However, it does contain lipoproteins that trigger an immune response in the host, causing tissue damage that may enhance the pathogen’s ability to disseminate while evading the host immune system.

After entering the body, T. pallidum moves rapidly into the bloodstream and other tissues. If not treated effectively, syphilis progresses through three distinct stages: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary syphilis appears as a single lesion on the cervix, penis, or anus within 10 to 90 days of transmission. Such lesions contain many T. pallidum cells and are highly infectious. The lesion, called a hard chancre, is initially hard and painless, but it soon develops into an ulcerated sore. Localized lymph node swelling may occur as well. In some cases, these symptoms may be relatively mild, and the lesion may heal on its own within two to six weeks. Because the lesions are painless and often occur in hidden locations (e.g., the cervix or anus), infected individuals sometimes do not notice them.

The secondary stage generally develops once the primary chancre has healed or begun to heal. Secondary syphilis is characterized by a rash that affects the skin and mucous membranes of the mouth, vagina, or anus. The rash often begins on the palms or the soles of the feet and spreads to the trunk and the limbs. The rash may take many forms, such as macular or papular. On mucous membranes, it may manifest as mucus patches or white, wartlike lesions called condylomata lata. The rash may be accompanied by malaise, fever, and swelling of lymph nodes. Individuals are highly contagious in the secondary stage, which lasts two to six weeks and is recurrent in about 25% of cases.

After the secondary phase, syphilis can enter a latent phase, in which there are no symptoms but microbial levels remain high. Blood tests can still detect the disease during latency. The latent phase can persist for years.

Tertiary syphilis, which may occur 10 to 20 years after infection, produces the most severe symptoms and can be fatal. Granulomatous lesions called gummas may develop in a variety of locations, including mucous membranes, bones, and internal organs. Gummas can be large and destructive, potentially causing massive tissue damage. The most deadly lesions are those of the cardiovascular system (cardiovascular syphilis) and the central nervous system (neurosyphilis). Cardiovascular syphilis can result in a fatal aortic aneurysm (rupture of the aorta) or coronary stenosis (a blockage of the coronary artery). Damage to the central nervous system can cause dementia, personality changes, seizures, general paralysis, speech impairment, loss of vision and hearing, and loss of bowel and bladder control.

a) micrograph of a spiral cell. b) micrograph of many spiral cells.
(a) Darkfield micrograph of Treponema pallidum. (b) Silver stain micrograph of the same species. (credit a, b: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Source:

Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology

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