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Syphilis

Syphilis is a bacterial infection caused by the spirochete Spirochete Treponema is a gram-negative, microaerophilic spirochete. Owing to its very thin structure, it is not easily seen on Gram stain, but can be visualized using dark-field microscopy. This spirochete contains endoflagella, which allow for a characteristic corkscrew movement. Treponema  Treponema Treponema Treponema is a gram-negative, microaerophilic spirochete. Owing to its very thin structure, it is not easily seen on Gram stain, but can be visualized using dark-field microscopy. This spirochete contains endoflagella, which allow for a characteristic corkscrew movement. Treponema pallidum pallidum (T. p. pallidum), which is usually spread through sexual contact. Syphilis has 4 clinical stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. Primary syphilis begins with a chancre, a painless ulcer on the genitals. Progression to secondary syphilis manifests as a generalized maculopapular Maculopapular Dermatologic Examination rash Rash Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which includes the palms and soles. The development of tertiary syphilis can cause severe neurologic (neurosyphilis), cardiovascular, and/or gummatous disease. The diagnosis is through both treponemal and nontreponemal testing. Penicillin G Penicillin G A penicillin derivative commonly used in the form of its sodium or potassium salts in the treatment of a variety of infections. It is effective against most gram-positive bacteria and against gram-negative cocci. It has also been used as an experimental convulsant because of its actions on gamma-aminobutyric acid mediated synaptic transmission. Penicillins is the antibiotic of choice. The duration of management varies based on the stage of the disease.

Last updated: Mar 30, 2022

Editorial responsibility: Stanley Oiseth, Lindsay Jones, Evelin Maza

Overview

Epidemiology

  • Worldwide annual new cases: 11 million
  • Incidence Incidence The number of new cases of a given disease during a given period in a specified population. It also is used for the rate at which new events occur in a defined population. It is differentiated from prevalence, which refers to all cases in the population at a given time. Measures of Disease Frequency in the United States is rising.
  • Men > women, particularly men who have sex Sex The totality of characteristics of reproductive structure, functions, phenotype, and genotype, differentiating the male from the female organism. Gender Dysphoria with men
  • Most common age group: 20–29 years old
  • Increased prevalence Prevalence The total number of cases of a given disease in a specified population at a designated time. It is differentiated from incidence, which refers to the number of new cases in the population at a given time. Measures of Disease Frequency in minorities

Etiology

  • Causative organism:
    • Treponema Treponema Treponema is a gram-negative, microaerophilic spirochete. Owing to its very thin structure, it is not easily seen on Gram stain, but can be visualized using dark-field microscopy. This spirochete contains endoflagella, which allow for a characteristic corkscrew movement. Treponema pallidum pallidum (T. p. pallidum)
    • Gram-negative spirochete Spirochete Treponema is a gram-negative, microaerophilic spirochete. Owing to its very thin structure, it is not easily seen on Gram stain, but can be visualized using dark-field microscopy. This spirochete contains endoflagella, which allow for a characteristic corkscrew movement. Treponema (spiral-shaped)
  • Transmission:
    • Human to human
  • Risk factors:
    • Acquired syphilis:
      • Unprotected sexual contact
      • Multiple sex Sex The totality of characteristics of reproductive structure, functions, phenotype, and genotype, differentiating the male from the female organism. Gender Dysphoria partners
      • Work in the sex Sex The totality of characteristics of reproductive structure, functions, phenotype, and genotype, differentiating the male from the female organism. Gender Dysphoria trade
    • Congenital Congenital Chorioretinitis syphilis:
      • Late or no prenatal care Prenatal care Prenatal care is a systematic and periodic assessment of pregnant women during gestation to assure the best health outcome for the mother and her fetus. Prenatal care prevents and identifies maternal and fetal problems that adversely affect the pregnancy outcome. Prenatal Care
      • Maternal drug use
      • Inadequate treatment of syphilis during pregnancy Pregnancy The status during which female mammals carry their developing young (embryos or fetuses) in utero before birth, beginning from fertilization to birth. Pregnancy: Diagnosis, Physiology, and Care

Pathophysiology

  • Virulence Virulence The degree of pathogenicity within a group or species of microorganisms or viruses as indicated by case fatality rates and/or the ability of the organism to invade the tissues of the host. The pathogenic capacity of an organism is determined by its virulence factors. Proteus factors:
    • Hyaluronidase Hyaluronidase Bacteroides:
      • Allows tissue invasion
      • Facilitates dissemination
    • Corkscrew motility Corkscrew motility Treponema:
      • Able to move in thick substances (e.g., connective tissue Connective tissue Connective tissues originate from embryonic mesenchyme and are present throughout the body except inside the brain and spinal cord. The main function of connective tissues is to provide structural support to organs. Connective tissues consist of cells and an extracellular matrix. Connective Tissue: Histology)
      • Assists with dissemination
    • Fibronectin Fibronectin Glycoproteins found on the surfaces of cells, particularly in fibrillar structures. The proteins are lost or reduced when these cells undergo viral or chemical transformation. They are highly susceptible to proteolysis and are substrates for activated blood coagulation factor VIII. The forms present in plasma are called cold-insoluble globulins. Connective Tissue: Histology:
  • Pathogenesis:
    • Primary syphilis:
      • T. p. pallidum adheres to skin Skin The skin, also referred to as the integumentary system, is the largest organ of the body. The skin is primarily composed of the epidermis (outer layer) and dermis (deep layer). The epidermis is primarily composed of keratinocytes that undergo rapid turnover, while the dermis contains dense layers of connective tissue. Skin: Structure and Functions or mucosal membranes → hyaluronidase Hyaluronidase Bacteroides production → tissue invasion
      • The organism coats itself in the host’s fibronectin Fibronectin Glycoproteins found on the surfaces of cells, particularly in fibrillar structures. The proteins are lost or reduced when these cells undergo viral or chemical transformation. They are highly susceptible to proteolysis and are substrates for activated blood coagulation factor VIII. The forms present in plasma are called cold-insoluble globulins. Connective Tissue: Histology → prevents recognition and phagocytosis Phagocytosis The engulfing and degradation of microorganisms; other cells that are dead, dying, or pathogenic; and foreign particles by phagocytic cells (phagocytes). Innate Immunity: Phagocytes and Antigen Presentation by the immune system Immune system The body’s defense mechanism against foreign organisms or substances and deviant native cells. It includes the humoral immune response and the cell-mediated response and consists of a complex of interrelated cellular, molecular, and genetic components. Primary Lymphatic Organs → development of the chancre (initial ulcerative lesion)
      • Eventual local immune control → resolution of chancre
      • During the primary period, some spirochetes Spirochetes An order of slender, flexuous, helically coiled bacteria, with one or more complete turns in the helix. Treponema move into local lymph nodes Lymph Nodes They are oval or bean shaped bodies (1 – 30 mm in diameter) located along the lymphatic system. Lymphatic Drainage System: Anatomy.
    • Later stages:
      • Spirochetes Spirochetes An order of slender, flexuous, helically coiled bacteria, with one or more complete turns in the helix. Treponema multiply and disseminate through the bloodstream → invade other organs and tissues
      • Host immune-inflammatory response → systemic clinical manifestations

Clinical Presentation

Syphilis is a multistage disease. Patients Patients Individuals participating in the health care system for the purpose of receiving therapeutic, diagnostic, or preventive procedures. Clinician–Patient Relationship can present at any stage and infected individuals may not exhibit symptoms for years.

Primary syphilis

  • Initial: localized infection
  • Incubation Incubation The amount time between exposure to an infectious agent and becoming symptomatic. Rabies Virus period is approximately 10–90 days.
  • Symptoms may go unnoticed.
  • Characterized by a chancre (primary lesion):
    • Painless
    • Begins as a firm, red papule Papule Elevated lesion < 1 cm in diameter Generalized and Localized Rashes
    • Becomes a firm ulcer with raised, indurated borders
    • Common locations:
      • Genitalia
      • Anus
      • Posterior pharynx Pharynx The pharynx is a component of the digestive system that lies posterior to the nasal cavity, oral cavity, and larynx. The pharynx can be divided into the oropharynx, nasopharynx, and laryngopharynx. Pharyngeal muscles play an integral role in vital processes such as breathing, swallowing, and speaking. Pharynx: Anatomy
      • Lips Lips The lips are the soft and movable most external parts of the oral cavity. The blood supply of the lips originates from the external carotid artery, and the innervation is through cranial nerves. Lips and Tongue: Anatomy
    • Heals spontaneously in 3–6 weeks
  •  Regional lymphadenopathy Lymphadenopathy Lymphadenopathy is lymph node enlargement (> 1 cm) and is benign and self-limited in most patients. Etiologies include malignancy, infection, and autoimmune disorders, as well as iatrogenic causes such as the use of certain medications. Generalized lymphadenopathy often indicates underlying systemic disease. Lymphadenopathy:
Primary, painless chancre of syphilis

Primary, painless chancre of syphilis (T. p. pallidum infection)

Image: “Chancres on the penile shaft Penile Shaft Bowen Disease and Erythroplasia of Queyrat due to a primary syphilitic infection caused by Treponema Treponema Treponema is a gram-negative, microaerophilic spirochete. Owing to its very thin structure, it is not easily seen on Gram stain, but can be visualized using dark-field microscopy. This spirochete contains endoflagella, which allow for a characteristic corkscrew movement. Treponema pallidum 6803 lores” by M. Rein. License: Public Domain

Secondary syphilis

  • Develops 2–12 weeks after the primary infection Primary infection Herpes Simplex Virus 1 and 2
  • Lasts 4–8 weeks
  • Constitutional symptoms Constitutional Symptoms Antineutrophil Cytoplasmic Antibody (ANCA)-Associated Vasculitis:
    • Fever Fever Fever is defined as a measured body temperature of at least 38°C (100.4°F). Fever is caused by circulating endogenous and/or exogenous pyrogens that increase levels of prostaglandin E2 in the hypothalamus. Fever is commonly associated with chills, rigors, sweating, and flushing of the skin. Fever
    • Malaise Malaise Tick-borne Encephalitis Virus
    • Myalgias Myalgias Painful sensation in the muscles. Tick-borne Encephalitis Virus
    • Headaches
    • Anorexia Anorexia The lack or loss of appetite accompanied by an aversion to food and the inability to eat. It is the defining characteristic of the disorder anorexia nervosa. Anorexia Nervosa
    • Weight loss Weight loss Decrease in existing body weight. Bariatric Surgery
    • Nausea Nausea An unpleasant sensation in the stomach usually accompanied by the urge to vomit. Common causes are early pregnancy, sea and motion sickness, emotional stress, intense pain, food poisoning, and various enteroviruses. Antiemetics
  • Generalized lymphadenopathy Generalized Lymphadenopathy Lymphadenopathy:
    • Firm
    • Tender
    • Rubbery
  • Mucocutaneous features (all are highly contagious):
    • Generalized rash Generalized Rash Generalized and Localized Rashes 
      • Nonpruritic
      • Macular, papular, or nodular
      • Scaly or smooth
      • Red, reddish-brown, or copper Copper A heavy metal trace element with the atomic symbol cu, atomic number 29, and atomic weight 63. 55. Trace Elements color
      • Involves the trunk, extremities, palms, and soles
    • Condylomata lata:
      • Grayish-white color
      • Wart-like lesions
      • Mostly seen around the anus and vagina Vagina The vagina is the female genital canal, extending from the vulva externally to the cervix uteri internally. The structures have sexual, reproductive, and urinary functions and a rich blood supply, mainly arising from the internal iliac artery. Vagina, Vulva, and Pelvic Floor: Anatomy (near the location of the primary chancre)
    • Lues maligna:
      • More severe, ulcerating skin Skin The skin, also referred to as the integumentary system, is the largest organ of the body. The skin is primarily composed of the epidermis (outer layer) and dermis (deep layer). The epidermis is primarily composed of keratinocytes that undergo rapid turnover, while the dermis contains dense layers of connective tissue. Skin: Structure and Functions lesions
      • Seen in immunocompromised immunocompromised A human or animal whose immunologic mechanism is deficient because of an immunodeficiency disorder or other disease or as the result of the administration of immunosuppressive drugs or radiation. Gastroenteritis patients Patients Individuals participating in the health care system for the purpose of receiving therapeutic, diagnostic, or preventive procedures. Clinician–Patient Relationship (e.g., HIV HIV Anti-HIV Drugs)
    • Alopecia Alopecia Alopecia is the loss of hair in areas anywhere on the body where hair normally grows. Alopecia may be defined as scarring or non-scarring, localized or diffuse, congenital or acquired, reversible or permanent, or confined to the scalp or universal; however, alopecia is usually classified using the 1st 3 factors. Alopecia (hair loss)
  • Systemic manifestations:
    • GI involvement:
    • Musculoskeletal involvement:
      • Periostitis Periostitis Inflammation of the periosteum. The condition is generally chronic, and is marked by tenderness and swelling of the bone and an aching pain. Acute periostitis is due to infection, is characterized by diffuse suppuration, severe pain, and constitutional symptoms, and usually results in necrosis. Reactive Arthritis
      • Synovitis Synovitis Inflammation of the synovial membrane. Rheumatoid Arthritis
      • Osteitis
    • Renal involvement:
      • Nephrotic syndrome Nephrotic syndrome Nephrotic syndrome is characterized by severe proteinuria, hypoalbuminemia, and peripheral edema. In contrast, the nephritic syndromes present with hematuria, variable loss of renal function, and hypertension, although there is sometimes overlap of > 1 glomerular disease in the same individual. Nephrotic Syndrome
      • Acute nephritis
      • Renal failure Renal failure Conditions in which the kidneys perform below the normal level in the ability to remove wastes, concentrate urine, and maintain electrolyte balance; blood pressure; and calcium metabolism. Renal insufficiency can be classified by the degree of kidney damage (as measured by the level of proteinuria) and reduction in glomerular filtration rate. Crush Syndrome
    • Ocular involvement:
      • Keratitis Keratitis Inflammation of the cornea. Herpes Simplex Virus 1 and 2
      • Anterior uveitis Uveitis Uveitis is the inflammation of the uvea, the pigmented middle layer of the eye, which comprises the iris, ciliary body, and choroid. The condition is categorized based on the site of disease; anterior uveitis is the most common. Diseases of the Uvea
      • Posterior uveitis Posterior Uveitis Diseases of the Uvea
      • Optic neuritis Optic neuritis Inflammation of the optic nerve. Commonly associated conditions include autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis, infections, and granulomatous diseases. Clinical features include retro-orbital pain that is aggravated by eye movement, loss of color vision, and contrast sensitivity that may progress to severe visual loss, an afferent pupillary defect (Marcus-Gunn pupil), and in some instances optic disc hyperemia and swelling. Inflammation may occur in the portion of the nerve within the globe (neuropapillitis or anterior optic neuritis) or the portion behind the globe (retrobulbar neuritis or posterior optic neuritis). Cranial Nerve Palsies
    • Ear involvement:
      • Hearing loss Hearing loss Hearing loss, also known as hearing impairment, is any degree of impairment in the ability to apprehend sound as determined by audiometry to be below normal hearing thresholds. Clinical presentation may occur at birth or as a gradual loss of hearing with age, including a short-term or sudden loss at any point. Hearing Loss
      • Tinnitus Tinnitus A nonspecific symptom of hearing disorder characterized by the sensation of buzzing, ringing, clicking, pulsations, and other noises in the ear. Objective tinnitus refers to noises generated from within the ear or adjacent structures that can be heard by other individuals. The term subjective tinnitus is used when the sound is audible only to the affected individual. Tinnitus may occur as a manifestation of cochlear diseases; vestibulocochlear nerve diseases; intracranial hypertension; craniocerebral trauma; and other conditions. Cranial Nerve Palsies
      • Vertigo Vertigo Vertigo is defined as the perceived sensation of rotational motion while remaining still. A very common complaint in primary care and the ER, vertigo is more frequently experienced by women and its prevalence increases with age. Vertigo is classified into peripheral or central based on its etiology. Vertigo

Latent syphilis

  • Period between secondary and tertiary syphilis where the disease lays dormant
  • Classified based on the duration since initial infection:
    • Early: < 1 year after initial infection
    • Late: > 1 year after initial infection
  • May last months to years (often decades)
  • The disease can resolve, relapse Relapse Relapsing Fever with skin Skin The skin, also referred to as the integumentary system, is the largest organ of the body. The skin is primarily composed of the epidermis (outer layer) and dermis (deep layer). The epidermis is primarily composed of keratinocytes that undergo rapid turnover, while the dermis contains dense layers of connective tissue. Skin: Structure and Functions/mucosal lesions, or progress to tertiary syphilis.

Tertiary syphilis

  • Seen in 33% of untreated cases
  • Occurs 1–30 years after the initial infection
  • Neurosyphilis:
    • Meningitis Meningitis Meningitis is inflammation of the meninges, the protective membranes of the brain, and spinal cord. The causes of meningitis are varied, with the most common being bacterial or viral infection. The classic presentation of meningitis is a triad of fever, altered mental status, and nuchal rigidity. Meningitis:
      • Headache Headache The symptom of pain in the cranial region. It may be an isolated benign occurrence or manifestation of a wide variety of headache disorders. Brain Abscess
      • Nausea Nausea An unpleasant sensation in the stomach usually accompanied by the urge to vomit. Common causes are early pregnancy, sea and motion sickness, emotional stress, intense pain, food poisoning, and various enteroviruses. Antiemetics and vomiting Vomiting The forcible expulsion of the contents of the stomach through the mouth. Hypokalemia
      • Neck stiffness Neck Stiffness Meningitis
      • Photophobia Photophobia Abnormal sensitivity to light. This may occur as a manifestation of eye diseases; migraine; subarachnoid hemorrhage; meningitis; and other disorders. Photophobia may also occur in association with depression and other mental disorders. Migraine Headache
      • Focal neurologic deficits Neurologic Deficits High-Risk Headaches
      • Cranial nerve deficits
      • Seizures Seizures A seizure is abnormal electrical activity of the neurons in the cerebral cortex that can manifest in numerous ways depending on the region of the brain affected. Seizures consist of a sudden imbalance that occurs between the excitatory and inhibitory signals in cortical neurons, creating a net excitation. The 2 major classes of seizures are focal and generalized. Seizures
    • Meningovascular disease:
      • Endarteritis → stroke
      • Meningomyelitis → spastic weakness, paresthesia, muscular atrophy Atrophy Decrease in the size of a cell, tissue, organ, or multiple organs, associated with a variety of pathological conditions such as abnormal cellular changes, ischemia, malnutrition, or hormonal changes. Cellular Adaptation
    • Paretic neurosyphilis: 
      • Chronic progressive meningoencephalitis Meningoencephalitis Encephalitis → cerebral atrophy Atrophy Decrease in the size of a cell, tissue, organ, or multiple organs, associated with a variety of pathological conditions such as abnormal cellular changes, ischemia, malnutrition, or hormonal changes. Cellular Adaptation
      • Mood disturbances
      • Psychiatric disease (e.g., depression, mania Mania A state of elevated excitement with over-activity sometimes accompanied with psychotic symptoms (e.g., psychomotor agitation, inflated self esteem and flight of ideas). It is often associated with mental disorders (e.g., cyclothymic disorder; and bipolar diseases). Bipolar Disorder, psychosis)
      • Memory Memory Complex mental function having four distinct phases: (1) memorizing or learning, (2) retention, (3) recall, and (4) recognition. Clinically, it is usually subdivided into immediate, recent, and remote memory. Psychiatric Assessment impairment
      • Tremors
      • Dysarthria Dysarthria Disorders of speech articulation caused by imperfect coordination of pharynx, larynx, tongue, or face muscles. This may result from cranial nerve diseases; neuromuscular diseases; cerebellar diseases; basal ganglia diseases; brain stem diseases; or diseases of the corticobulbar tracts. The cortical language centers are intact in this condition. Wilson’s Disease
      • Seizure
      • Pupillary abnormalities can occur but are rare.
    • Tabes dorsalis (locomotor ataxia Ataxia Impairment of the ability to perform smoothly coordinated voluntary movements. This condition may affect the limbs, trunk, eyes, pharynx, larynx, and other structures. Ataxia may result from impaired sensory or motor function. Sensory ataxia may result from posterior column injury or peripheral nerve diseases. Motor ataxia may be associated with cerebellar diseases; cerebral cortex diseases; thalamic diseases; basal ganglia diseases; injury to the red nucleus; and other conditions. Ataxia-telangiectasia): 
      • Demyelination Demyelination Multiple Sclerosis of the dorsal columns Dorsal Columns Posterior Cord Syndrome and the dorsal roots
      • Ataxia Ataxia Impairment of the ability to perform smoothly coordinated voluntary movements. This condition may affect the limbs, trunk, eyes, pharynx, larynx, and other structures. Ataxia may result from impaired sensory or motor function. Sensory ataxia may result from posterior column injury or peripheral nerve diseases. Motor ataxia may be associated with cerebellar diseases; cerebral cortex diseases; thalamic diseases; basal ganglia diseases; injury to the red nucleus; and other conditions. Ataxia-telangiectasia
      • Stabbing (“lightning-like”) pain Pain An unpleasant sensation induced by noxious stimuli which are detected by nerve endings of nociceptive neurons. Pain: Types and Pathways in the back and legs
      • Loss of vibratory sense and proprioception Proprioception Sensory functions that transduce stimuli received by proprioceptive receptors in joints, tendons, muscles, and the inner ear into neural impulses to be transmitted to the central nervous system. Proprioception provides sense of stationary positions and movements of one’s body parts, and is important in maintaining kinesthesia and postural balance. Neurological Examination
      • Loss of reflexes
      • Paresthesia
      • Charcot joints
      • Urine Urine Liquid by-product of excretion produced in the kidneys, temporarily stored in the bladder until discharge through the urethra. Bowen Disease and Erythroplasia of Queyrat retention and incontinence
      • Argyll Robertson pupils (pupils accommodate but do not react)
  • Cardiovascular syphilis:
  • Benign Benign Fibroadenoma tertiary gummatous syphilis:
    • Gummas:
      • Soft, solitary, granulomatous lesions with central necrosis Necrosis The death of cells in an organ or tissue due to disease, injury or failure of the blood supply. Ischemic Cell Damage
      • Variable Variable Variables represent information about something that can change. The design of the measurement scales, or of the methods for obtaining information, will determine the data gathered and the characteristics of that data. As a result, a variable can be qualitative or quantitative, and may be further classified into subgroups. Types of Variables in size
      • Destructive (leaves scars)
    • Occurs on skin Skin The skin, also referred to as the integumentary system, is the largest organ of the body. The skin is primarily composed of the epidermis (outer layer) and dermis (deep layer). The epidermis is primarily composed of keratinocytes that undergo rapid turnover, while the dermis contains dense layers of connective tissue. Skin: Structure and Functions, bones, or organs
    • Bone Bone Bone is a compact type of hardened connective tissue composed of bone cells, membranes, an extracellular mineralized matrix, and central bone marrow. The 2 primary types of bone are compact and spongy. Bones: Structure and Types involvement may cause deep, boring pain Pain An unpleasant sensation induced by noxious stimuli which are detected by nerve endings of nociceptive neurons. Pain: Types and Pathways (worse at night).
Tertiary syphilis gumma

A gumma on the palate Palate The palate is the structure that forms the roof of the mouth and floor of the nasal cavity. This structure is divided into soft and hard palates. Palate: Anatomy of a patient with tertiary syphilis

Image: “16762” by CDC. License: Public Domain

Diagnosis

General approach

It is difficult to diagnose syphilis. However, specific labs and the correlation Correlation Determination of whether or not two variables are correlated. This means to study whether an increase or decrease in one variable corresponds to an increase or decrease in the other variable. Causality, Validity, and Reliability of history and examination results can lead to a diagnosis.

  • Patients Patients Individuals participating in the health care system for the purpose of receiving therapeutic, diagnostic, or preventive procedures. Clinician–Patient Relationship with suspected T. p. pallidum infection should be screened with a nontreponemal test 1st.
  • A positive nontreponemal test should be followed by a confirmatory treponemal test.
  • Patients Patients Individuals participating in the health care system for the purpose of receiving therapeutic, diagnostic, or preventive procedures. Clinician–Patient Relationship should also be tested for other STIs STIs Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections that spread either by vaginal intercourse, anal sex, or oral sex. Symptoms and signs may include vaginal discharge, penile discharge, dysuria, skin lesions (e.g., warts, ulcers) on or around the genitals, and pelvic pain. Some infections can lead to infertility and chronic debilitating disease. Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).

Nontreponemal testing

  • Use for screening Screening Preoperative Care purposes since the tests are sensitive, but not specific.
  • Detects anticardiolipin antibodies Antibodies Immunoglobulins (Igs), also known as antibodies, are glycoprotein molecules produced by plasma cells that act in immune responses by recognizing and binding particular antigens. The various Ig classes are IgG (the most abundant), IgM, IgE, IgD, and IgA, which differ in their biologic features, structure, target specificity, and distribution. Immunoglobulins: Types and Functions
  • Options:
  • False-positive results can occur with: 
    • Pregnancy Pregnancy The status during which female mammals carry their developing young (embryos or fetuses) in utero before birth, beginning from fertilization to birth. Pregnancy: Diagnosis, Physiology, and Care
    • Viral infections Infections Invasion of the host organism by microorganisms or their toxins or by parasites that can cause pathological conditions or diseases. Chronic Granulomatous Disease
    • Rheumatic fever Rheumatic fever Acute rheumatic fever (ARF) is an autoimmune inflammatory process that usually follows Streptococcal pharyngitis. Acute rheumatic fever usually occurs 2-4 weeks after an untreated infection and affects the heart, skin, joints, and nervous system. Rheumatic Fever
    • Systemic lupus erythematosus Systemic lupus erythematosus Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a chronic autoimmune, inflammatory condition that causes immune-complex deposition in organs, resulting in systemic manifestations. Women, particularly those of African American descent, are more commonly affected. Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
    • Drugs

Treponemal testing

  • Confirmatory tests that detect antibodies Antibodies Immunoglobulins (Igs), also known as antibodies, are glycoprotein molecules produced by plasma cells that act in immune responses by recognizing and binding particular antigens. The various Ig classes are IgG (the most abundant), IgM, IgE, IgD, and IgA, which differ in their biologic features, structure, target specificity, and distribution. Immunoglobulins: Types and Functions to Treponema Treponema Treponema is a gram-negative, microaerophilic spirochete. Owing to its very thin structure, it is not easily seen on Gram stain, but can be visualized using dark-field microscopy. This spirochete contains endoflagella, which allow for a characteristic corkscrew movement. Treponema antigens
  • Even after treatment, treponemal antibody titers are positive for life.
  • Options:
    • Fluorescent treponemal antibody absorption Absorption Absorption involves the uptake of nutrient molecules and their transfer from the lumen of the GI tract across the enterocytes and into the interstitial space, where they can be taken up in the venous or lymphatic circulation. Digestion and Absorption test:
      • Can be done on CSF to evaluate for neurosyphilis
      • Less specific than the CSF-VDRL test
    • Microhemagglutination assay for T. p. pallidum ( MHA-TP MHA-TP Treponema)
    • T. p. pallidum particle agglutination test (TPPA)
    • T. p. pallidum enzyme immunoassay Enzyme immunoassay HIV Infection and AIDS (TP-EIA)
    • Chemiluminescence Chemiluminescence Blotting Techniques immunoassay (CIA)

Direct methods

Definitive tests using obtained specimens (such as mucosal lesions). However, use is limited since the tests are not routinely available.

  • Darkfield microscopy: 
    • A microscopy technique illuminating specimens against a dark background.
    • Motile spirochetes Spirochetes An order of slender, flexuous, helically coiled bacteria, with one or more complete turns in the helix. Treponema are seen.
  • Direct fluorescent antibody Direct Fluorescent Antibody A form of fluorescent antibody technique utilizing a fluorochrome conjugated to an antibody, which is added directly to a tissue or cell suspension for the detection of a specific antigen. Congenital TORCH Infections (DFA) testing
  • PCR PCR Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a technique that amplifies DNA fragments exponentially for analysis. The process is highly specific, allowing for the targeting of specific genomic sequences, even with minuscule sample amounts. The PCR cycles multiple times through 3 phases: denaturation of the template DNA, annealing of a specific primer to the individual DNA strands, and synthesis/elongation of new DNA molecules. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) to detect T. p. pallidum DNA DNA A deoxyribonucleotide polymer that is the primary genetic material of all cells. Eukaryotic and prokaryotic organisms normally contain DNA in a double-stranded state, yet several important biological processes transiently involve single-stranded regions. DNA, which consists of a polysugar-phosphate backbone possessing projections of purines (adenine and guanine) and pyrimidines (thymine and cytosine), forms a double helix that is held together by hydrogen bonds between these purines and pyrimidines (adenine to thymine and guanine to cytosine). DNA Types and Structure.
Darkfield microscopy of t. Pallidum

Darkfield microscopy of T. p. pallidum:
Corkscrew-shaped Corkscrew-shaped Borrelia bacteria Bacteria Bacteria are prokaryotic single-celled microorganisms that are metabolically active and divide by binary fission. Some of these organisms play a significant role in the pathogenesis of diseases. Bacteriology are seen.

Image: “20488” by Richard O. Deitrick. License: Public Domain

Management

Early syphilis management

For primary, secondary, or early-latent syphilis, the following antibiotics can be used:

  • Preferred: IM penicillin G Penicillin G A penicillin derivative commonly used in the form of its sodium or potassium salts in the treatment of a variety of infections. It is effective against most gram-positive bacteria and against gram-negative cocci. It has also been used as an experimental convulsant because of its actions on gamma-aminobutyric acid mediated synaptic transmission. Penicillins (single dose)
  • Alternative regimens: 
    • Doxycycline
    • Ceftriaxone Ceftriaxone A broad-spectrum cephalosporin antibiotic and cefotaxime derivative with a very long half-life and high penetrability to meninges, eyes and inner ears. Cephalosporins
    • Tetracycline Tetracycline A naphthacene antibiotic that inhibits amino Acyl tRNA binding during protein synthesis. Drug-induced Liver Injury
    • Amoxicillin Amoxicillin A broad-spectrum semisynthetic antibiotic similar to ampicillin except that its resistance to gastric acid permits higher serum levels with oral administration. Penicillins + probenecid Probenecid The prototypical uricosuric agent. It inhibits the renal excretion of organic anions and reduces tubular reabsorption of urate. Probenecid has also been used to treat patients with renal impairment, and, because it reduces the renal tubular excretion of other drugs, has been used as an adjunct to antibacterial therapy. Gout Drugs
    • Azithromycin Azithromycin A semi-synthetic macrolide antibiotic structurally related to erythromycin. It has been used in the treatment of Mycobacterium avium intracellulare infections, toxoplasmosis, and cryptosporidiosis. Macrolides and Ketolides

Late syphilis management

For late-latent syphilis, tertiary syphilis, or syphilis of unknown duration, the following regimen is used:

  • Preferred: IM penicillin G Penicillin G A penicillin derivative commonly used in the form of its sodium or potassium salts in the treatment of a variety of infections. It is effective against most gram-positive bacteria and against gram-negative cocci. It has also been used as an experimental convulsant because of its actions on gamma-aminobutyric acid mediated synaptic transmission. Penicillins (3 weeks)
  • Alternative regimen: 
    • Doxycycline
    • Ceftriaxone Ceftriaxone A broad-spectrum cephalosporin antibiotic and cefotaxime derivative with a very long half-life and high penetrability to meninges, eyes and inner ears. Cephalosporins

Neurosyphilis

  • Preferred: IV penicillin G Penicillin G A penicillin derivative commonly used in the form of its sodium or potassium salts in the treatment of a variety of infections. It is effective against most gram-positive bacteria and against gram-negative cocci. It has also been used as an experimental convulsant because of its actions on gamma-aminobutyric acid mediated synaptic transmission. Penicillins
  • Alternative regimen: ceftriaxone Ceftriaxone A broad-spectrum cephalosporin antibiotic and cefotaxime derivative with a very long half-life and high penetrability to meninges, eyes and inner ears. Cephalosporins

Jarisch–Herxheimer reaction

  • Caused by an immune response to the antigens released by dying spirochetes Spirochetes An order of slender, flexuous, helically coiled bacteria, with one or more complete turns in the helix. Treponema
  • Symptoms:
  • All patients Patients Individuals participating in the health care system for the purpose of receiving therapeutic, diagnostic, or preventive procedures. Clinician–Patient Relationship should be monitored after therapy is initiated:
    • Occurs within 24 hours
    • Resolves within 12–24 hours
    • Seen in 10%–35% of cases
  • Supportive care may be given:
    • Antipyretics (e.g., acetaminophen Acetaminophen Acetaminophen is an over-the-counter nonopioid analgesic and antipyretic medication and the most commonly used analgesic worldwide. Despite the widespread use of acetaminophen, its mechanism of action is not entirely understood. Acetaminophen, aspirin Aspirin The prototypical analgesic used in the treatment of mild to moderate pain. It has anti-inflammatory and antipyretic properties and acts as an inhibitor of cyclooxygenase which results in the inhibition of the biosynthesis of prostaglandins. Aspirin also inhibits platelet aggregation and is used in the prevention of arterial and venous thrombosis. Nonsteroidal Antiinflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), ibuprofen Ibuprofen A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agent with analgesic properties used in the treatment of rheumatism and arthritis. Nonsteroidal Antiinflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs))
    • IV fluids IV fluids Intravenous fluids are one of the most common interventions administered in medicine to approximate physiologic bodily fluids. Intravenous fluids are divided into 2 categories: crystalloid and colloid solutions. Intravenous fluids have a wide variety of indications, including intravascular volume expansion, electrolyte manipulation, and maintenance fluids. Intravenous Fluids

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Differential Diagnosis

  • Chancroid Chancroid Chancroid is a highly transmissible STD caused by Haemophilus ducreyi. The disease presents with painful ulcer(s) on the genital tract (termed chancroid or “soft chancre”). Up to 50% of patients will develop painful inguinal lymphadenopathy. Chancroid: STI STI Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections that spread either by vaginal intercourse, anal sex, or oral sex. Symptoms and signs may include vaginal discharge, penile discharge, dysuria, skin lesions (e.g., warts, ulcers) on or around the genitals, and pelvic pain. Some infections can lead to infertility and chronic debilitating disease. Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) caused by Haemophilus Haemophilus Haemophilus is a genus of Gram-negative coccobacilli, all of whose strains require at least 1 of 2 factors for growth (factor V [NAD] and factor X [heme]); therefore, it is most often isolated on chocolate agar, which can supply both factors. The pathogenic species are H. influenzae and H. ducreyi. Haemophilus ducreyi. Patients Patients Individuals participating in the health care system for the purpose of receiving therapeutic, diagnostic, or preventive procedures. Clinician–Patient Relationship develop painful, necrotizing genital ulcers, and inguinal lymphadenopathy Inguinal Lymphadenopathy Lymphadenopathy. Diagnosis is usually clinical, but PCR PCR Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a technique that amplifies DNA fragments exponentially for analysis. The process is highly specific, allowing for the targeting of specific genomic sequences, even with minuscule sample amounts. The PCR cycles multiple times through 3 phases: denaturation of the template DNA, annealing of a specific primer to the individual DNA strands, and synthesis/elongation of new DNA molecules. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and cultures Cultures Klebsiella can help to confirm. Management is with macrolide antibiotics.
  • Donovanosis Donovanosis Donovanosis (also known as granuloma inguinale) is an STD caused by Klebsiella granulomatis and is mainly seen in tropical regions. The condition is characterized by chronic, progressive, ulcerating disease mostly affecting the genital region. Donovanosis: STI STI Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections that spread either by vaginal intercourse, anal sex, or oral sex. Symptoms and signs may include vaginal discharge, penile discharge, dysuria, skin lesions (e.g., warts, ulcers) on or around the genitals, and pelvic pain. Some infections can lead to infertility and chronic debilitating disease. Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) caused by Klebsiella Klebsiella Klebsiella are encapsulated gram-negative, lactose-fermenting bacilli. They form pink colonies on MacConkey agar due to lactose fermentation. The main virulence factor is a polysaccharide capsule. Klebsiella pneumoniae is the most important pathogenic species. Klebsiella granulomatis. Donovanosis Donovanosis Donovanosis (also known as granuloma inguinale) is an STD caused by Klebsiella granulomatis and is mainly seen in tropical regions. The condition is characterized by chronic, progressive, ulcerating disease mostly affecting the genital region. Donovanosis is also known as granuloma inguinale Granuloma inguinale Donovanosis (also known as granuloma inguinale) is an STD caused by Klebsiella granulomatis and is mainly seen in tropical regions. The condition is characterized by chronic, progressive, ulcerating disease mostly affecting the genital region. Donovanosis. The progressive, nodular genital lesions can form into painless ulcerations and cause tissue damage. Lymphadenopathy Lymphadenopathy Lymphadenopathy is lymph node enlargement (> 1 cm) and is benign and self-limited in most patients. Etiologies include malignancy, infection, and autoimmune disorders, as well as iatrogenic causes such as the use of certain medications. Generalized lymphadenopathy often indicates underlying systemic disease. Lymphadenopathy is uncommon. Diagnosis is confirmed with microscopic findings of Donovan bodies Donovan Bodies Donovanosis from the lesion. Management involves antibiotics, such as macrolides Macrolides Macrolides and ketolides are antibiotics that inhibit bacterial protein synthesis by binding to the 50S ribosomal subunit and blocking transpeptidation. These antibiotics have a broad spectrum of antimicrobial activity but are best known for their coverage of atypical microorganisms. Macrolides and Ketolides, tetracyclines Tetracyclines Tetracyclines are a class of broad-spectrum antibiotics indicated for a wide variety of bacterial infections. These medications bind the 30S ribosomal subunit to inhibit protein synthesis of bacteria. Tetracyclines cover gram-positive and gram-negative organisms, as well as atypical bacteria such as chlamydia, mycoplasma, spirochetes, and even protozoa. Tetracyclines, and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole.
  • Lymphogranuloma venereum Lymphogranuloma venereum Subacute inflammation of the inguinal lymph glands caused by certain immunotypes of Chlamydia trachomatis. It is a sexually transmitted disease in the U.S. But is more widespread in developing countries. It is distinguished from granuloma venereum, which is caused by calymmatobacterium granulomatis. Chlamydial Infections: STI STI Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections that spread either by vaginal intercourse, anal sex, or oral sex. Symptoms and signs may include vaginal discharge, penile discharge, dysuria, skin lesions (e.g., warts, ulcers) on or around the genitals, and pelvic pain. Some infections can lead to infertility and chronic debilitating disease. Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) caused by 3 strains of Chlamydia Chlamydia Chlamydiae are obligate intracellular gram-negative bacteria. They lack a peptidoglycan layer and are best visualized using Giemsa stain. The family of Chlamydiaceae comprises 3 pathogens that can infect humans: Chlamydia trachomatis, Chlamydia psittaci, and Chlamydia pneumoniae. Chlamydia trachomatis. Patients Patients Individuals participating in the health care system for the purpose of receiving therapeutic, diagnostic, or preventive procedures. Clinician–Patient Relationship may have a small, transient, painless genital ulcer, followed by lymphadenopathy Lymphadenopathy Lymphadenopathy is lymph node enlargement (> 1 cm) and is benign and self-limited in most patients. Etiologies include malignancy, infection, and autoimmune disorders, as well as iatrogenic causes such as the use of certain medications. Generalized lymphadenopathy often indicates underlying systemic disease. Lymphadenopathy ( bubo Bubo Yersinia pestis/Plague). Diagnosis is clinical, though PCR PCR Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a technique that amplifies DNA fragments exponentially for analysis. The process is highly specific, allowing for the targeting of specific genomic sequences, even with minuscule sample amounts. The PCR cycles multiple times through 3 phases: denaturation of the template DNA, annealing of a specific primer to the individual DNA strands, and synthesis/elongation of new DNA molecules. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing can help with confirmation. Management involves tetracyclines Tetracyclines Tetracyclines are a class of broad-spectrum antibiotics indicated for a wide variety of bacterial infections. These medications bind the 30S ribosomal subunit to inhibit protein synthesis of bacteria. Tetracyclines cover gram-positive and gram-negative organisms, as well as atypical bacteria such as chlamydia, mycoplasma, spirochetes, and even protozoa. Tetracyclines or erythromycin Erythromycin A bacteriostatic antibiotic macrolide produced by streptomyces erythreus. Erythromycin a is considered its major active component. In sensitive organisms, it inhibits protein synthesis by binding to 50s ribosomal subunits. This binding process inhibits peptidyl transferase activity and interferes with translocation of amino acids during translation and assembly of proteins. Macrolides and Ketolides.
  • Genital herpes Genital Herpes Genital herpes infections are common sexually transmitted infections caused by herpes simplex virus (HSV) type 1 or 2. Primary infection often presents with systemic, prodromal symptoms followed by clusters of painful, fluid-filled vesicles on an erythematous base, dysuria, and painful lymphadenopathy. Labial and Genital Herpes: a common STI STI Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections that spread either by vaginal intercourse, anal sex, or oral sex. Symptoms and signs may include vaginal discharge, penile discharge, dysuria, skin lesions (e.g., warts, ulcers) on or around the genitals, and pelvic pain. Some infections can lead to infertility and chronic debilitating disease. Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) caused by HSV HSV Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is a double-stranded DNA virus belonging to the family Herpesviridae. Herpes simplex virus commonly causes recurrent infections involving the skin and mucosal surfaces, including the mouth, lips, eyes, and genitals. Herpes Simplex Virus 1 and 2 type 1 Type 1 Spinal Muscular Atrophy or 2. Prodromal symptoms often precede clusters of painful, fluid-filled vesicles Vesicles Female Genitourinary Examination on an erythematous base, which eventually form ulcers that can coalesce. Lymphadenopathy Lymphadenopathy Lymphadenopathy is lymph node enlargement (> 1 cm) and is benign and self-limited in most patients. Etiologies include malignancy, infection, and autoimmune disorders, as well as iatrogenic causes such as the use of certain medications. Generalized lymphadenopathy often indicates underlying systemic disease. Lymphadenopathy, dysuria Dysuria Painful urination. It is often associated with infections of the lower urinary tract. Urinary tract infections (UTIs), and severe neuralgia can occur. The diagnosis is generally clinical but confirmed with PCR PCR Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a technique that amplifies DNA fragments exponentially for analysis. The process is highly specific, allowing for the targeting of specific genomic sequences, even with minuscule sample amounts. The PCR cycles multiple times through 3 phases: denaturation of the template DNA, annealing of a specific primer to the individual DNA strands, and synthesis/elongation of new DNA molecules. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and serologic testing. Management includes antiviral Antiviral Antivirals for Hepatitis B therapy.
  • Genital warts Warts Benign epidermal proliferations or tumors; some are viral in origin. Female Genitourinary Examination (also called condylomata acuminata Condylomata Acuminata Condylomata acuminata are a clinical manifestation of genital HPV infection. Condylomata acuminata are described as raised, pearly, flesh-colored, papular, cauliflower-like lesions seen in the anogenital region that may cause itching, pain, or bleeding. Condylomata Acuminata (Genital Warts)): a human papillomavirus Human papillomavirus Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a nonenveloped, circular, double-stranded DNA virus belonging to the Papillomaviridae family. Humans are the only reservoir, and transmission occurs through close skin-to-skin or sexual contact. Human papillomaviruses infect basal epithelial cells and can affect cell-regulatory proteins to result in cell proliferation. Papillomavirus (HPV) ( HPV HPV Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a nonenveloped, circular, double-stranded DNA virus belonging to the Papillomaviridae family. Humans are the only reservoir, and transmission occurs through close skin-to-skin or sexual contact. Human papillomaviruses infect basal epithelial cells and can affect cell-regulatory proteins to result in cell proliferation. Papillomavirus (HPV)) infection causing a range of mucocutaneous findings, including broad-based smooth or velvety papules, or rough verrucous or fungating plaques, in the anogenital region. The diagnosis is clinical. Management may include cytodestructive therapy ( podophyllotoxin Podophyllotoxin A lignan (lignans) found in podophyllin resin from the roots of podophyllum plants. It is a potent spindle poison, toxic if taken internally, and has been used as a cathartic. It is very irritating to skin and mucous membranes, has keratolytic actions, has been used to treat warts and keratoses, and may have antineoplastic properties, as do some of its congeners and derivatives. Molluscum Contagiosum), immune-mediated therapy ( imiquimod Imiquimod A topically-applied aminoquinoline immune modulator that induces interferon production. It is used in the treatment of external genital and perianal warts, superficial carcinoma, basal cell; and actinic keratosis. Hypertrophic and Keloid Scars), or surgical therapy.

References

  1. Hicks, C. and Clement, M. (2020). Syphilis: Screening and diagnostic testing. UpToDate. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/syphilis-screening-and-diagnostic-testing
  2. Hicks, C. and Clement, M. (2020). Syphilis: Treatment and monitoring. UpToDate. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/syphilis-treatment-and-monitoring
  3. Marra, C. (2020). Neurosyphilis. UpToDate. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/neurosyphilis
  4. Hicks, C. and Clement, M. (2020). Syphilis: Epidemiology, pathophysiology, and clinical manifestations in patients without HIV. UpToDate. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/syphilis-epidemiology-pathophysiology-and-clinical-manifestations-in-patients-without-hiv
  5. Chandrasekar, P.H. (2017). Syphilis. In Bronze, M.S. (Ed.). Medscape. Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/229461-overview
  6. Tudor, M.E., Al Aboud, A.M., and Gossman, W.G. (2020). Syphilis. StatPearls. Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK534780/
  7. Ha, T., Taki, P., and Dubensky, L. (2020). Neurosyphilis. StatPearls. Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK540979/
  8. Morris, S.R. (2020). Syphilis. MSD Manual Professional Version. Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://www.msdmanuals.com/professional/infectious-diseases/sexually-transmitted-diseases-stds/syphilis

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