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Syphilitic aseptic meningitis

Syphilitic aseptic meningitis, or syphilitic meningitis, is a complication of untreated syphilis. It involves inflammation of the tissues covering the brain and spinal cord.

Causes

Syphilitic meningitis is a form of neurosyphilis. This condition is a life-threatening complication of syphilis infection. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection.

Syphilitic meningitis is similar to meningitis caused by other germs (organisms).

Risks for syphilitic meningitis include a past infection with syphilis or other sexually transmitted illnesses such as gonorrhea. Syphilis infections are mainly spread through sex with an infected person. Sometimes, they may be passed by nonsexual contact.

Symptoms

Symptoms of syphilitic meningitis may include:

  • Changes in vision, such as blurred vision, decreased vision
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Mental status changes, including confusion, decreased attention span, and irritability
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stiff neck or shoulders, muscle aches
  • Seizures
  • Sensitivity to light (photophobia) and loud noises
  • Sleepiness, lethargy, hard to wake up

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will perform a physical exam. This may show problems with the nerves, including nerves that control eye movement.

Tests may include:

If screening tests show a syphilis infection, more tests are done to confirm the diagnosis. Tests include:

Treatment

The goals of treatment are to cure the infection and stop symptoms from getting worse. Treating the infection helps prevent new nerve damage and may reduce symptoms. Treatment does not reverse existing damage.

Medicines likely to be given include:

  • Penicillin or other antibiotics (such as tetracycline or erythromycin) for a long time to make sure the infection goes away
  • Medicines for seizures

Outlook (Prognosis)

Some people may need help eating, dressing, and caring for themselves. Confusion and other mental changes may either improve or continue long-term after antibiotic treatment.

Late-stage syphilis can cause nerve or heart damage. This can lead to disability and death.

Possible Complications

Complications may include:

  • Inability to care for self
  • Inability to communicate or interact
  • Seizures that may result in injury
  • Stroke

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if you have seizures.

Call your provider if you have a severe headache with fever or other symptoms, especially if you have a history of syphilis infection.

Prevention

Proper treatment and follow-up of syphilis infections will reduce the risk of developing this type of meningitis.

If you are sexually active, practice safer sex and always use condoms.

All pregnant women should be screened for syphilis.

Alternative Names

Meningitis - syphilitic; Neurosyphilis - syphilitic meningitis

References

Radolf JD, Tramont EC, Salazar JC. Syphilis (Treponema pallidum). In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, Updated Edition. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 239.

Tunkel AR, van de Beek D, Scheld WM. Acute meningitis. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, Updated Edition. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 89.

Review Date 7/31/2016

Updated by: Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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