The conventional wisdom about Benjamin Franklin and his wife, Deborah Read Rogers, is simple: They were a mismatched match from the start. He was a printer who needed the independence of working alone; she was too practical and preferred the security of a regular job.

But a deeper look at the events that unfolded before and after their only son was born suggests something else.

What is syphilis?

Although the intimate details of Franklin’s carnal indulgences remain a subject for speculation, the great American statesman never contracted syphilis. Instead, Franklin met his demise at the hands of gout, pneumonia and pleurisy.

Syphilis is a bacterial infection spread through skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal or oral sex. The first sign of syphilis is usually a painless sore called a chancre. Chancres can develop in the mouth, lips, genitals or breasts and may look like a pimple or wart.

The chancres can spread through the blood to other parts of the body, causing symptoms such as fatigue, sore throat and muscle aches. Eventually, the bacteria can damage the heart, liver and other organs, resulting in mental illness, blindness and deafness.

Syphilis can also be dangerous for pregnant women. Untreated syphilis increases the risk of a stillbirth or infant death within days of birth. All pregnant people should have a syphilis test during their first prenatal visit.

Stages of syphilis

In the first stage, a single sore (called a chancre) develops. This sore is usually painless, and it appears at the site where the syphilis germ entered your body (usually the mouth or anus). This sore may resemble a pimple.

If you get treatment at this point, your infection will go away. But if you don’t, the bacteria will spread through your bloodstream and enter a second stage of syphilis called secondary syphilis. The chancre in the mouth or anus may become ulcerated and large. You’ll have a rash, and you may also have trouble hearing or vision problems.

Without treatment, syphilis can cause serious damage to your heart, brain and other organs. The disease can also cause serious problems for your unborn child, especially if it is passed from mother to baby during pregnancy or delivery. In the final stage, tertiary syphilis, symptoms can include a swollen liver, spleen and pancreas; damaged eyes, nerves and blood vessels; and severe brain damage.

Symptoms of syphilis

The bacteria (Treponema pallidum) that cause syphilis can enter your body through minor cuts or abrasions in the skin or mucous membranes. The first symptom is a painless sore, called a chancre, that develops where the infection entered your body. It may appear in your penis, rectum, mouth or anus.

If syphilis goes untreated, it can damage your liver, nervous system and other organs. It can also spread to an unborn baby, leading to severe birth defects. Untreated syphilis during pregnancy can lead to congenital syphilis, which can be disabling or fatal for both mother and child.

Syphilis can be treated with antibiotics, especially in the early stages. If you think you have syphilis, call for an appointment with your health care provider and tell them about your symptoms. Practice safer sex and always use condoms with a partner. All pregnant people should get tested for syphilis during their first prenatal visit. Tests for syphilis are available at many local public and private health care providers.

Treatment for syphilis

Getting treated early for syphilis is important to stop the infection from spreading. Treatments include penicillin injections, oral sulfamethoxazole/ trimethoprim tablets and folic acid supplements. You can also get a sample of cerebrospinal fluid through a lumbar puncture to test for nervous system complications.

Untreated syphilis progresses to the latent stage after the second-stage rash clears up. At this stage, you may have no symptoms or only mild ones now and then. But the bacteria can damage your heart, bones, nerves and organs. The latent stage can last for up to 20 years. You can pass syphilis to your sexual partners during this time.

Syphilis spreads through skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal or oral sex. It can also spread through a mother’s womb or during childbirth, when it causes congenital syphilis in newborns. Babies with this form of the disease can have a rash, fever, deafness, eye problems and physical deformities. Treating syphilis in pregnant women prevents the disease from passing to their babies.

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