In the 18th and 19th Centuries, syphilis was called the French pox by the English, and the English pox by the French.
Syphilis is an infection that is usually sexually transmitted, and which passes through three main stages over many months or years. It is relatively uncommon in developed countries, but still widespread in poorer societies. The cause is the spirochete bacterium Treponema pallidum, which is transmitted by heterosexual or homosexual contact, sharing injecting needles, blood transfusions, or from a mother to her child during pregnancy (congenital syphilis). The same bacteria also cause yaws and bejel, which are transmitted by close body contact, but not necessarily sexual contact.
The symptoms are totally different in each of the three stages:-
- First stage syphilis causes a painless sore (chancre) on the penis, the female genitals, or around the anus of homosexuals, which heals after three to six weeks. There may be painless enlarged lymph nodes in the armpit and groin that also disappear.
- Second stage syphilis starts a few weeks or months later with a widespread rash, mouth and vaginal ulcers, and a slight fever. The patient is highly infectious but will usually recover and enter a latent period that may last many years.
- Third (tertiary) stage syphilis develops years later with tumours (gumma) in the liver, major arteries, bones, brain, spinal cord (tabes dorsalis), skin and other organs. Symptoms vary depending on organs involved but may include arthritis, bone weakness, severe bone pain, paralysis, strokes, heart attacks, internal bleeding from aneurysms, blindness, headaches, jaundice (liver failure), muscle spasms, skin ulcers, scars, nodules in the larynx and lungs, vomiting, confusion, insanity and death.
Congenital syphilis occurs in newborn infant who have teeth abnormalities, deafness, misshapen bones, deformed saddle nose, pneumonia, and intellectual disability.
It can be treated by penicillin and similar antibiotics.