Syphilis In Women - Diagnosis

Please describe the tests and exams that led to a diagnosis of syphilis.

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How is syphilis diagnosed?

Syphilis can be diagnosed by scraping the base of the ulcer and looking under a special type of microscope (dark field microscope) for the spirochetes. However, since these microscopes are rarely detected, the diagnosis is most often made and treatment is prescribed based upon the appearance of the chancre. Diagnosis of syphilis is complicated by the fact that the causative organism cannot be grown in the laboratory. Therefore, cultures of affected areas cannot be used for diagnosis.

Special blood tests can also be used to diagnose syphilis. The standard screening blood tests for syphilis are called the Venereal Disease Research Laboratory (VDRL) and Rapid Plasminogen Reagent (RPR) tests. These tests detect the body's response to the infection, but not to the actual Treponema organism that causes the infection. These tests are thus referred to as non-treponemal tests. Although the non-treponemal tests are very effective in detecting evidence of infection, they can also produce a positive result when no infection is actually present (so-called false-positive results for syphilis). Consequently, any positive non-treponemal test must be confirmed by a treponemal test specific for the organism causing syphilis, such as the microhemagglutination assay for T. pallidum (MHA-TP) and the fluorescent treponemal antibody absorbed test (FTA-ABS). These treponemal tests directly detect the body's response to Treponema pallidum.

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