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  • Painless ulcer on genitalia, perianal area, rectum, pharynx, tongue, lip, or elsewhere.

  • Fluid expressed from ulcer contains T pallidum by immunofluorescence or darkfield microscopy.

  • Nontender enlargement of regional lymph nodes.

  • Serologic nontreponemal and treponemal tests may be positive.

Clinical Findings

A. Symptoms and Signs

The typical lesion is the chancre at the site or sites of inoculation, most frequently located on the penis (Figure 34–1), labia, cervix, or anorectal region. Anorectal lesions are especially common among MSM. Chancres also occur occasionally in the oropharynx (lip, tongue, or tonsil) and rarely on the breast or finger or elsewhere. An initial small erosion appears 10–90 days (average, 3–4 weeks) after inoculation then rapidly develops into a painless superficial ulcer with a clean base and firm, indurated margins. This is associated with enlargement of regional lymph nodes, which are rubbery, discrete, and nontender. Bacterial infection of the chancre may occur and may cause pain. Healing occurs without treatment, but a scar may form, especially with secondary bacterial infection. Multiple chancres may be present, particularly in HIV-positive patients. Although the “classic” ulcer of syphilis has been described as nontender, nonpurulent, and indurated, only 31% of patients have this triad.

Figure 34–1.

Primary syphilis with a large chancre on the glans of the penis. The multiple small surrounding ulcers are part of the syphilis and not a second disease. (Used, with permission, from Richard P. Usatine, MD, in Usatine RP, Smith MA, Mayeaux EJ Jr, Chumley H. The Color Atlas of Family Medicine, 2nd ed. McGraw-Hill, 2013.)

B. Laboratory Findings

1. Microscopic examination

In early (infectious) syphilis, darkfield microscopic examination by a skilled observer of fresh exudate from moist lesions or material aspirated from regional lymph nodes is up to 90% sensitive for diagnosis but is usually only available in select clinics that specialize in sexually transmitted disease. The darkfield examination requires expertise for proper specimen collection and identification of characteristic features of morphology and motility of pathogenic spirochetes, and repeated examinations may be necessary. Darkfield examination of oral lesions is not recommended because of the presence of nonpathogenic treponemes in the mouth. Spirochetes usually are not found in late syphilitic lesions by this technique.

An immunofluorescent staining technique for demonstrating T pallidum in dried smears of fluid taken from early syphilitic lesions is also performed in only a few laboratories. Slides are fixed and treated with fluorescein-labeled antitreponemal antibody that has been preabsorbed with nonpathogenic treponemes. The slides are then examined for fluorescing spirochetes in an ultraviolet microscope.

T pallidum polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is available as a “home brew” test in select research, referral, and public health laboratories and has the ...

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