Syphilitic meningitis is a form of bacterial meningitis that occurs due to a complication of syphilis. Without treatment, it can lead to permanent injury or death.

A person can develop syphilitic meningitis as a complication of syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection (STI), if they do not detect and treat the disease.

Once they diagnose syphilis, doctors often treat it with penicillin or other antibiotics and prevent the development of syphilitic meningitis.

In this article, we look at what syphilitic meningitis is, how to recognize it, and what causes it. We also explore common treatments, strategies for prevention, and outlook for those who have the condition.

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Syphilitic meningitis is a form of meningitis that occurs as a complication of untreated syphilis. Syphilis is a type of bacterial STI.

If someone does not receive treatment for syphilis, the bacteria can travel to the brain and cause syphilitic meningitis. This typically occurs within 1 year of initial infection.

Meningitis is a type of viral, bacterial, or fungal infection that affects the meninges, the tissue covering the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).

Syphilitic meningitis is a form of aseptic meningitis. The infection is treatable, but it is also life threatening. Since the discovery of penicillin, this form of meningitis has been very rare.

A person may not experience any symptoms of syphilitic meningitis. In other cases, symptoms may develop and then resolve on their own.

When symptoms do occur, they often involve:

If left untreated, syphilitic meningitis can worsen any time from 6 months to 6 or 7 years following diagnosis. Signs of a worsening infection include:

The cause of syphilis is a bacterium called Treponema pallidum. Without treatment, it can develop into a potentially fatal form of meningitis.

Syphilis is an STI, which means anyone who is sexually active may come in contact with and contract the infection. Some people have a higher risk, including:

  • people who have other STIs
  • sex workers
  • people living with HIV
  • people who use intravenous drug
  • people who live in areas where the infection is present
  • people who engage in anal sex

A doctor may be able to diagnose syphilis with a physical examination and blood tests.

However, its clinical manifestations can make it difficult to distinguish it from other infections.

If a doctor determines that a person with symptoms of meningitis has syphilis, it generally indicates a case of syphilitic meningitis and allows them to treat the underlying infection.

The standard of care for syphilis is penicillin, which is a form of antibiotic.

Once a person receives a diagnosis, they will likely need 10–14 days of intravenous (IV) antibiotics to treat the infection.

Following the initial doses, a doctor may also recommend weekly shots for up to 3 weeks.

People allergic to penicillin have other options available. A doctor will recommend the best option based on a person’s allergies and tolerance to medications.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection. A person can reduce their risk of contracting an STI by taking some of the following steps:

  • getting regular screenings
  • reducing the number of sexual partners
  • practicing abstinence
  • using condoms
  • maintaining a mutually monogamous relationship with one partner

Syphilitic meningitis is a potentially deadly complication of untreated syphilis.

It can lead to irreversible damage to the central nervous system and cardiovascular system.

Once someone treats it with penicillin, the infection should clear. Some people will fully recover, while others may have permanent nerve damage that may still need addressing.

Syphilitic meningitis is a rare form of meningitis that occurs due to untreated syphilis.

A person can take steps to prevent syphilis, and they may wish to get regular screenings to check for it when sexually active.

If doctors detect syphilis in time, they can typically treat the infection with penicillin and prevent the development of meningitis.