Syphilis is a contagious germ disease affecting the entire system. While commonly acquired through sexual intercourse with a person affected with the disorder, it may be inherited from the parents, one or both. It is often acquired through accidental contact with sources of contagion. Syphilis and tuberculosis are the two great destroyers of health and happiness, but syphilis is the more common.
Symptoms. Acquired syphilis may be divided into three stages: the primary, secondary, and tertiary. The first stage is characterized by the appearance of a pimple or sore on the surface of the sexual organ not usually earlier than two, nor later than five to seven, weeks after sexual intercourse. The appearance of this first sore is subject to such variations that it is not always possible for even the most skillful physician to determine positively the presence of syphilis in any individual until the symptoms characteristic of the second stage develop. Following the pimple on the surface of the penis comes a raw sore with hard deposit beneath, as of a coin under the skin. It may be so slight as to pass unnoticed or become a large ulcer, and may last from a few weeks to several months. There are several other kinds of sores which have no connection with syphilis and yet may resemble the syphilitic sore so closely that it becomes impossible to distinguish between them except by the later symptoms to be described. Along with this sore, lumps usually occur in one or both groins, due to enlarged glands.
The second stage appears in six to seven weeks after the initial sore, and is characterized by the occurrence of a copper colored rash over the body, but not often on the face, which resembles measles considerably. Sometimes a pimply or scaly eruption is seen following this or in place of the red rash. At about, or preceding, this period other symptoms may develop, as fever, headache, nausea, loss of appetite, and sleeplessness, but these may not be prominent. Moist patches may appear on the skin, in the armpits, between the toes, and about the rectum; or warty outgrowths in the latter region. There is sore throat, with frequently grayish patches on the inside of the cheeks, lips, and tongue. The hair falls out in patches or, less often, is all lost. Inflammation of the eye is sometimes a symptom. These symptoms do not always occur at the same time, and some may be absent or less noticeable than others.
The third stage comes on after months or years, or in those subjected to treatment may not occur at all. This stage is characterized by sores and ulcerations on the skin and deeper tissues, and the occurrence of disease of different organs of the body, including the muscles, bones, nervous system, and blood vessels; every internal organ is susceptible to syphilitic change.
A great many affections of the internal organs the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, brain, and cord which were formerly attributed to other causes, are now recognized as the product of syphilis. The central nervous system is peculiarly susceptible to the action of the syphilitic poison, and when affected may show the fact through paralysis, crippling, disabling, and disfiguring disorders.
Years after cure has apparently resulted, patients are more liable to certain nervous disorders, as locomotor ataxia, which attacks practically only syphilitics; and general paresis, of which seventy five per cent of the cases occur in those who have had syphilis.
Inherited Syphilis. Children born with syphilis of syphilitic parents show the disease at birth or usually within one or two months. They present a gaunt, wasted appearance, suffer continually from snuffles or nasal catarrh, have sores and cracks about the lips, loss of hair, and troublesome skin eruptions. The syphilitic child has been described as a “little old man with a cold in his head.” The internal organs are almost invariably diseased, and sixty to eighty per cent of the cases fortunately die. Those who live to grow up are puny and poorly developed, so that at twenty they look not older than twelve, and are always delicate.
It is to be noted that syphilis is not necessarily a venereal disease, that is, acquired through sexual relations. It may be communicated by kissing, by accidental contact with a sore on a patient’s body, by the use of pipes, cups, spoons, or other eating or drinking utensils, or contact with any object upon which the virus of the disease has been deposited.
Any part of the surface of the body or mucous membrane is susceptible of being inoculated with the virus of syphilis, followed by a sore similar to what has been described as occurring upon the genital parts and later the development of constitutional symptoms. The contagiousness of the disease is supposed to last during the first three years of its existence, but there are many authentic cases of contagion occurring after four or five years of syphilis.
Diagnosis. The positive determination of the existence of syphilis at the earliest moment is of the utmost importance in order to set at rest doubt and that treatment may be begun. It is necessary to wait, however, until the appearance of the eruption, sore throat, enlargement of glands, falling out of hair, etc., before it is safe to be positive.
Treatment. The treatment should be begun as soon as the diagnosis is made, and must be continuously and conscientiously pursued for three years or longer. If treatment is instituted before the secondary symptoms, it may prevent their appearance so that the patient may remain in doubt whether he had the disease or not, for it is impossible for the most skilled specialist absolutely to distinguish the disease before the eruption, no matter how probable its existence may seem. This happens because there are several kinds of sores which attack the sexual organs and which may closely simulate syphilis. The treatment is chiefly carried out with various forms of mercury and iodides, but so much knowledge and experience are required in adapting these to the individual needs and peculiarities of the patient that it is impossible to describe their use. Patients should not marry until four or five years have elapsed since the appearance of syphilis in their persons, and at least twelve months after all manifestations of the disease have ceased. If these conditions have been complied with, there is little danger of communicating the disease to their wives or transmitting it to their offspring. They must moreover, have been under the treatment during all this period. Abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, dissipation, and especial care of the teeth are necessary during treatment.
Results. The majority of syphilitics recover wholly under treatment and neither have a return of the disease nor communicate it to their wives or children. It is, however, possible for a man, who has apparently wholly recovered for five or six years or more, to impart the disease. Without proper treatment or without treatment for the proper time, recurrence of the disease is frequent with the occurrence of the destructive and often serious symptoms characteristic of the third stage of the disease. While syphilis is not so fatal to life as tuberculosis, it is capable of causing more suffering and unhappiness, and is directly transmitted from father to child, which is not the case with consumption. Syphilis is also wholly preventable, which is not true of tuberculosis at present. It is not probable that syphilis is ever transmitted to the third generation directly, but deformities, general debility, small and poor teeth, thin, scanty growth of hair, nervous disorders, and a general miserable physique are seen in children whose parents were the victims of inherited syphilis. In married life syphilis may be communicated to the wife directly from the primary sore on the penis of the husband during sexual intercourse, but contamination of the wife more often happens from the later manifestations of the disease in the husband, as from secretion from open sores on the body or from the mouth, when the moist patches exist there.
It is possible for a child to inherit syphilis from the father when the germs of syphilis are transmitted through the semen of the father at the time of conception and yet the mother escape the disease. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for the child to become thus infected and infect its mother while in her womb; or the mother may receive syphilis from the husband after conception, and the child become infected in the womb.
The chief social danger of syphilis comes from its introduction into marriage and its morbid radiations through family and social life. Probably one in every five cases of syphilis in women is communicated by the husband in the marriage relation. There are so many sources and modes of its contagion that it is spread from one person to another in the ordinary relations of family and social life from husband to wife and child, from child to nurse, and to other members of the family, so that small epidemics of syphilis may be traced to its introduction into a family. Syphilis is the only disease which is transmitted in full virulence to the offspring, and its effect is simply murderous. As seen above, from sixty to eighty per cent of all children die before or soon after birth. One third of those born alive die within the next six months, and those that finally survive are blighted in their development, both physical and mental, and affected with various organic defects and deformities which unfit them for the battle of life. Syphilis has come to be recognized as one of the most powerful factors in the depopulation and degeneration of the race.