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The prevalence of syphilis in different races. Figure 41. Primary and Secondary Syphilis — Reported Cases* by Sex, Sexual Behavior, and Race/Ethnicity, United States, 2013.[1].

By [Heather Fantry]

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that has been rising in prevalence since 2000 (CDC, 2013)(Figure 1). It is caused by the spirochete
Treponema pallidum.
T. pallidum is a thin, tightly coiled spirochete that is microaerophilic (Tramont, 2005). Unlike most bacteria that infect humans, it cannot be cultured in the laboratory. It can only be cultured in laboratory animals, usually rabbits, which are not readily available in hospitals or medical clinics. Hence the diagnosis of syphilis is extremely difficult.

Clincial Signs and Symptons

Syphilis penis. Primary stage of syphilis (chancre) on glans (head) of the penis.[2].
Secondary stage of syphilis Rash on back.[3].

Before understand how to diagnose syphilis, it is important to know about the stages of disease since different methods may be used for different stages. Primary syphilis h occurs 9-90 days after contact with T. pallidum (Tramont, 2005). It is manifested by a skin lesion called a chancre (Figure 2) (CDC, 2013). It starts out as flat area of redness that develops into a bump and then into a swallowing opening in the skin. The chancre occurs at any place on the body in which an individual has had contact with T. pallidum. This is usually on the penis in a man or external genitalia in a woman but can be in the mouth or even on a finger.

The next stage is secondary syphilis. This occurs 3-10 weeks after the initial lesion if a person is not treated with antibiotics (Tramont, 2005). This means that T. pallidum has spread throughout the body. The most common symptom is a non-itchy rash that is not raised and often is on all parts of the body (Figure 3). Other manifestations can include fever, headache, weight loss, lymph node swelling, loss of hair, and eye disease. Individuals also may develop condyloma latum which are flat bumps in the genital area which have lots of T. pallidum and are very infectious. In addition, individuals can get flat patches in their mouth called mucous patches.

The third stage is latent syphilis (CDC, 2013). It has no signs or symptoms and the only manifestation of the disease is a positive blood test.

The final stage is tertiary syphilis which only occurs in 35% of untreated patients (Tramont 2005). It occurs 10-25 years after primary syphilis. Most commonly it causes disease of the nervous system but it also can cause heart disease or deposits in the skin, soft tissue, or bones called gummas. The neurological manifestations are meningitis, strokes, dysfunction of cranial nerves, dementia, difficulty walking, visual or auditory problems, and loss of vibration sense.

T. pallidum can be transmitted from a mother to her unborn child which is called congenital syphilis (CDC, 2013). Although rare in the United States, it is of great concern because it can cause deafness, neurological problems, bone deformities, and even death (CDC, 2013).

Who Should be Tested for Syphilis?

Individuals with any of the signs and symptoms of syphilis should be tested for syphilis (CDC, 2014). In addition, persons with no symptoms but are at risk for syphilis should be tested. This includes persons whose have multiple sexual partners, use illegal drugs, use alcohol, have unprotected sex, and are prostitutes. It also includes men who have sex with men, prisoners, and HIV-infected patients. In addition, anyone who has a sexual partner that has syphilis should be tested. Finally, women who are pregnant should also be tested because of the risk of transmission to their infant.

Knowledge of the syphilis epidemic also is helpful (Figure 4). Syphilis is most common in urban areas and the south so any sexually active person should be tested in these areas. The state with the highest rate is Maryland.

Direct Diagonsis


The most sensitive and quickest method to diagnose primary syphilis is microscopy (Tramont 2005). A swab is place in the chancre and T. pallidum attaches to the swab and can be viewed under a microscope. However, T. pallidum is so thin (0.1 µm) that it cannot resolve light and can only be detected by light scattering which requires a special darkfield microscope. Under darkfield microscopy, T. pallidum will look like a corkscrew rapidly turning around its midpoint (Slonczewski and Foster, 2014 and Tramont, 1995) (Figure 4). However, a dark field microscope requires skilled technicians and is so expensive that it is not readily available at hospitals or other medical facilities (Tramont, 1995).

Darkfield microscopy of Syphilis.[4].

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)

Another direct method that is available to diagnose syphilis is PCR. PCR is used to amplify sections of T. pallidum DNA which was fully sequenced in 1998 (Fraser et al, 1998). It can be used to diagnose primary syphilis by taking a swab from the chancre. This method has been showed to be 82% sensitive and 95% specific (Grange et al, 2012). It can also be used to diagnose secondary syphilis using a blood sample and to diagnose congenital syphilis using frozen or formalin fixed placental tissue (Genest et al, 1996 and Heymans et al, 2010). However, T. pallidum PCR is not readily available in the United States and specimens have to be shipped to the CDC (CDC, 2015) Submission requires special approval by the local health department and the turnaround time is two weeks.

Antibody Tests

Since dark field microscopy is only useful for primary syphilis and not readily available and PCR is primarily used for congenital syphilis and also not readily available, the primary methods for diagnosing syphilis are antibody tests. They can be divided into nontreponemal and treponemal tests.

Nontreponemal Antibody Tests
These test measure IgG and IgM antibodies nonspecific antibodies that are present in persons with syphilis directed against a cardiolipin-lecithin –cholesterol antigen that is released from T. pallidum or when T. pallidum interacts with human tissue (CDC, 2013). They do not measure direct antibodies against T. pallidum itself. The most commonly used nontreponemal antibody tests are the rapid plasma reagin (RPR) card test, automated regain test (ART), and toluidine red unheated test (TRUST). In addition, there is also now a modified RPR test which is a point-of-care test which means that it can be done where the patient receives care such as a clinic, doctor’s office or emergency room (Peeling RW et al, 2006).

Both the RPR and VDRL are quantitative results (CDC, 2013). The higher the titer, the higher dilution that the test was still positive and hence the more antibody present. The quantity of antibodies correlates with disease activity. Dilutions are report in 1:2n+1. For example, results can be 1:1 (20), 1:2 (21), 1:4 (22), or 1:16 (23). A titer or 1:1 is correlated with low disease activity while a titer of 1:256 is correlated high disease activity.

Nontreponemal antibody tests are most useful during secondary syphilis because they are positive in 100% of infected individuals (Figure 5) (CDC, 2013). They can also be used to diagnose primary and tertiary syphilis but they may be falsely negative in up to 29% to patients. In primary syphilis, antibodies may not have had time to develop. In tertiary syphilis, titers decline with time. In addition, because these tests are nonspecific, they also can produce false positive results. Other bacterial infections, viral infections including HIV, injections drug use, vaccination, and autoimmune diseases can produce positive results even when T. pallidum is not present. All positive nontreponemal tests need to be confirmed with a specific treponemal test.

Treponemal Immunofluorescent Antibody Tests
Until recently, there were only three antibody tests that specifically measured antibodies to T. pallidum (Tramont, 2005). These were the fluorescent treponemal antibody-absorbed (FTA-abs), T. pallidum Haemagglutination Assay (TPHA) and Microhemagglutination Assay for Antibodies to T. pallidum (MHATP). The most commonly used test is the FTS-abs. It uses T. pallidum taken from rabbit testes and is a standard immunofluorescent antibody test in which an antibody is labeled with a compound that fluoresces. Since nonpathogenic treponemes are in the mouth and genital tract of humans, the antibodies against these treponemes need to be removed by a “sorbent” which is a nonpathogenic antigen. The patient’s serum is then placed on slide with a T. pallidum antigen and fluorescein-labeled antihuman gamma globulin is added to the slide. If there are antibodies to T. pallidum, the slide will fluoresce when viewed in fluorescence microscope.

Enzyme-linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA)
Recently, another type of specific antibody test called the syphilis ELISA has come into widespread use. It is performed by coating the wells of a plastic laboratory dish with T. pallidum (Slonczewski and Foster, 2014). If antibodies to T. pallidum are present, then they will bind with the T. pallidum. Unbound antibodies in the serum are washed away and another antibody linked to an enzyme that binds to the T. pallidum antibodies is added to the dish. When a substrate for the enzyme is placed in the dish, the enzyme produces light or a colored product only in the wells that have antibody to T. pallidum. There will be no light in the wells without T. pallidum antibodies. The sensitivity of the ELISA is 93% which is greater than other antibody tests (Figure 6) (CDC, 2013).

Because ELISA tests to diagnose syphilis are less expensive than nontreponemal antibody tests when performed on large numbers of samples, some sexually transmitted disease clinics and blood banks screen with an ELISA test (CDC, 2008, CDC, 2010). Unlike nontreponemal antibody tests, there is no titer given so it cannot distinguish between appropriately treated past infection and infection that requires treatment (CDC, 2010). It is recommended in these cases that a nontreponemal test be used for confirmation and to make treatment decisions.

Reverse enzyme-linked immunospot assay (RELISPOT)
In the late 1990, enzyme linked immunospot assays were developed in an attempt to differentiate active syphilis from treated syphilis (Tabidze, 1999). In these assays, blood mononuclear cells are collected and tested for T. pallidum-specific circulating antibody-secreting cells by an enzyme-linked immunospot assay (ELISPOT). This type of assay enables visualization of products secreted by human immune cells (Wikipedia, 2014). Each spot on the assay represents a single reactive cell. Some early work showed that they were positive in 100% of patients with primary syphilis, 87% of patients with secondary syphilis, and 46% of patients with latent syphilis. However, there is no mention of this test in later papers or in current recommendations for diagnosing syphilis (CDC, 2014, CDC, 2013, CDC, 2010).

Similar to the ELISPOT, the RELISPOT can be used to give a quantitation of secreted antigen. It’s major use in syphilis is to distinguish active infection in the newborn from passive transfer of antibodies from the mother to the infant (Stoll et al, 1993). Stoll et al found that sensitivities of the RELISPOT were not as high as the IgM ELISA or FTA-abs but its specificity was >96%.

Immunochromatographic Tests
Immunochromatographic tests for syphilis are referred to as immunochromatographic membrane tests (ICT) or immunochromatographic strip (ICS). Serum is placed on a cellulose strip bound with anti-human immunoglobulins and/or purified T. pallidum antigens (Slonczewski and Foster, 2014). If there are antibodies in the patient’s serum, there is a color change which is visible to the naked eye. Sensitivity and specificity are between 85% and 98% when compared to other antibody tests (Herring A, 2006, Slonczewski and Foster, 2014). Immunochromatographic tests are point-of-care tests that do not require a laboratory can be done where the patient receives medical care. Staff require minimal training and the test are inexpensive. Results are available in 15 minutes or less so that patients can be notified immediately of their results.

Until recently, none of these tests were approved by use in the United States so they were used primarily in developing countries. However, in 2014 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an immunochromatographic test called Syphilis Health Check (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2014).

Line Immunoassay (LIA)
The LIA uses T. pallidum recombinant and synthetic polypeptide antigens to determine if a patient’s blood has treponemal antibodies (Hagedon HJ, 2002). Similar to the immunochromatographic tests, it is a point-of-care test that is inexpensive, rapid, and requires little training to read. It is used in developing countries. The sensitivity and specificity of the LIA were 100 % and 99 %, respectively (Hagedon HJ, 2002).

Dual Treponemal/Nontreponemal Test
The most recent development in syphilis testing is the development of a syphilis point-of-care tests that combines a treponemal and nontreponemal antibody test. This means that the patient does not have to wait for a confirmatory test as with the other tests. The test is called the DPP Syphilis Screen and Confirmation Assay. A recent study showed that the sensitivity was 89.8% and specificity was 99.3% when compared with immunoassay and RPRs. However, it has not been approved by the FDA and thus is not available yet for use in the United States. (Causer LM, 2015)

Interpreting Antibody Tests

As mention in the prior section, if a nontreponemal antibody test is positive, then it should be confirmed with a treponemal antibody test and if a treponemal antibody test is positive, then it should be confirmed with a nontreponemal antibody test (CDC, 2010). The latter is called reverse sequence screening. However, even when this is done, it is still not easy to differentiate a new case of syphilis that needs treatment from a prior case f syphilis that does not. This is because, unlike many infections, a person with syphilis can be infected more than once and, in fact, 20% of persons with syphilis have had at least one prior episode. Treponemal tests for most of these individuals will remain reactive for life even if they have received appropriate treatment (CDC, 2010). In contrast, the nontreponemal tests (RPR and VDRL) in most people revert to nonreactive. This makes it essential to get a nontreponemal test to determine whether or not to treat.

It is even more difficult to diagnose active disease in the 1-4% of patients who remain serofast (CDC 2010. This means that the RPR pr VDRL test remains reactive. The only way to know if it is an infection that needs treatment is to compare titers. If the titer is four fold lower than pervious (i.e. 1:128 down to 1:32), this means that the person has been appropriately treated and no further therapy is needed (CDC, 2010). If the titer has risen, did not change or only decreased two fold (1:128 to 1:64), then the person has not had appropriate treatment or has been reinvented. Repeat testing should be done with the same test (either an RPR or VDRL) and ideally done by the same lab. RPR titers are often higher than VDRL titers.

Although there have been reports of unusually high or low or changing titers in HIV-infected persons, tests should be performed and interpreted in the same manner for HIV-infected individuals as for non-HIV-infected individuals (CDC 2010).

Testing for Neurosyphilis

The diagnosis of neurosyphilis is less direct and even more challenging than the diagnosis of other forms of syphilis. In 30% of cases of primary and secondary syphilis, T. pallidum does invade the cerebrospinal fluid but there is no obvious clinical signs or symptoms and no long term sequel. Therefore, it is not recommended to test for neurosyphilis routinely in individuals with primary and secondary syphilis. However, some individuals, especially AIDS patients and other immunocompromised individuals, develop neurosyphilis. It is important to make this diagnosis because it can cause significant morbidity and mortality and it needs to be treated differently than other forms of syphilis. The antibiotics need to be given in high enough doses so that they penetrate the central nervous system.

Besides testing for nontreponemal and treponemal antibodies, persons with signs and symptoms of neurosyphilis, those who do not respond to treatment, and those with tertiary syphilis manifested by heart disease or gummas need to have lumbar puncture. A lumbar puncture is when a needle is inserted between the bones in the lumbar spine to remove cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the fluid surrounding the brain (Mayo Clinci Staff, 2015). Certain tests need to be performed on the CSF. These include a VDRL, one of the nontreponemal antibody tests; a cell count to determine how many and what type of white blood cells; and protein level. The VDRL is highly specific but in not very sensitive so many individuals that have neurosyphilis do not have a positive CSF-VDRL. It the CSF-VDRL is negative, a white blood cell count >5 cells/mm3 or a protein level ≥ 46 mg/dl are suggestive of neurosyphilis (CDC, 2013). However, these tests are not specific, especially in HIV patients, who often have >5 white blood cell count /mm3 in the CDF (CDC, 2010).

Testing for Congenital Syphilis

It is recommended that all pregnant women should be tested for syphilis at the first prenatal visit and then repeated again during the third trimester (CDC, 2012). High risk women or those living in area with a high prevalence of syphilis should be tested again in third trimester and a delivery. Testing of the mother is done with nontreponemal and treponemal antibody tests as in other non-pregnant adults. If syphilis is diagnosed during the second half of pregnancy in the mother, than the infant should immediately have an ultrasound to look for signs of syphilis such as live enlargement, fluid in body compartments, or a thickened placenta (CDC, 2010). If an infant is born to a mother with a reactive nontreponemal and treponemal, then the infant needs to be evaluated for congenital syphilis (CDC, 2014). The infant’s serum should be tested with a nontreponemal test but the infant’s blood may not be reactive especially if the mother has low titers or the mother was recently infected (CDC, 2010). The infant should also be examined for evidence of syphilis. Any skin lesions that are suspicious should be swabbed. Swabs from these lesions and other body fluids, and tissue from birth such as the placenta or umbilical cord should be examined under a darkfield microscope for T. pallidum. These specimens can also be examined for IgM specific antibodies using ELISA, Relispot, FTA-abs, or immunoblotting/Western blot. Specimens should be sent to the CDC for PCR (CDC, 2010). A lumbar puncture can also help establish the diagnosis. The same tests (VDRL, cell count and protein) are done as in adults who may have neurosyphilis. X-rays of the long bones and an ultrasound to look for abnormal fluid are also helpful.


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