Does Syphilis Only Affect the Genitals?

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In general, when syphilis comes up in conversation, people usually come to the incorrect conclusion that it is only the genital region which is affected, and as such no consideration is given to the fact that the infection may actually have profound effects on any other areas of the body. Consequently it is a complete myth that syphilis is only able to affect the genital regions or only regions that have come into contact with the genitals during acts of sexual gratification.  Generally, syphilis that is affecting systems of the body other than the urinary or genital regions occurs in the tertiary or late phase of the infection, although this is not always the case.


An example of a type of syphilis not confined to the usual place is that of neurosyphilis. This type of syphilis affects the central nervous system which includes the spinal cord and brain.  In addition any other structures that may protect the brain such as the meninges, which is essentially the membrane that covers the brain, may also be affected.

As a result, symptoms of neurosyphilis include a loss of both physical and mental functioning. Motor function may be affected, so leading to the development of permanent symptoms such as ataxia, which is where voluntary muscle control is greatly reduced. Sensory impairments may also arise, affecting perception of your awareness in space, or proprioception, as well as a loss of sense to vibration. Psychological issues, concerning more the changes in personality and mood may also occur. Mania is such an example and possibly the most well known symptom of neurosyphilis as when a person suffers from mania, they are prone to performing erratic actions as well as having deluded thoughts.  Cognitive functions such as memory may also be highly affected, leading to onset of dementia in people with neurosyphilis.

On the other hand, symptoms do not always occur with this type of infection and in fact an asymptomatic state can be seen which occurs in approximately 30% of all cases.  Usually this is identified by a spinal tap examination of cerebrospinal fluid from that region which is then tested to see whether it contains the Treponema pallidus bacteria responsible for causing syphilis infections.  This must be performed in a careful manner to prevent any blood contamination that may give a false positive result.

Another variation to syphilis is also a form of neurosyphilis but this focuses more on the vascular system that serves the brain. Referred to as meningovascular syphilis, the infection affects the small blood capillaries or vessels within the brain as well as the covering of the brain that can also be called the meninges.  It is common to see this as a form of secondary infection, occurring several years after the primary syphilis infection. In terms of symptoms, these are more like symptoms that you would experience if you have issues with the blood vessels of the brain. As a result, migraine type headaches and dizziness are common complaints of this type of illness and in rare instances stroke, blindness or deafness may occur.  Occasionally, this type of infection can lead on to meningitis which is essentially the inflammation of the meninges as a problematic complication to the syphilis.  

Neurosyphilis can also come with very severe complications that can be considered to be medical conditions within their own right. An example of such a thing is general paresis. This is where an individual suffers from chronic dementia and by this stage, life expectancy is approximately only 2 to 3 years. The individual will more than likely undergo drastic personality changes and memory loss as well as confusion plus in some cases depression or psychosis may accompany these symptoms.

Cardiovascular syphilis

Syphilis may also begin to have a detrimental effect on the heart and blood vessels within the body. This form of the infection is known as cardiovascular syphilis. This variation of syphilis tends to occur after a typical syphilis infection, but usually not until 15 to 30 years after the infection took place. A potentially life threatening complication that may occur because of cardiovascular syphilis is the inflammation of the aorta. The aorta is the main blood vessel that branches directly from the heart so inflammation of this vessel effects the blood flow from the heart and hence the flow to the rest of the body.  In addition, inflammation may occur within the blood vessels that carry blood to the heart muscle itself, called the coronary arteries. If these become inflamed, blood flow to the muscle is reduced and this leads to angina like chest pains and may in the worst case scenario lead to a heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction. Cardiovascular syphilis may also weaken the blood vessel walls. This is prominent in the aorta where the wall may become weakened, allowing the vessel to swell. If the swelling is so severe that the blood vessel is in critical risk of bursting, it is referred to as an aortic aneurysm.

In addition to testing for the presence of syphilis in the blood, certain other examinations may be performed to check the functioning of the heart and its major vessels. An echocardiogram, or ECG, provides graphical representation of the electrical activity in the heart to determine if the heart is beating at a correct pace and in a synchronised manner. An aortic angiogram could also be performed to see if any damage has been caused to the heart or arteries coming directly from the heart. A radioactive dye is injected, via a catheter through a blood vessel in the groin, into the aorta and this is then x-rayed. Images are produced showing details of the level of blood flow through the arteries as well as any damage or obstructions present.

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