The early initial ulcerative lesion (chancre) caused by Treponema pallidum infection, has a median incubation period of 21 days (primary syphilis). When untreated, secondary syphilis will develop within weeks to months and is characterized by generalized symptoms such as malaise, fevers, headaches, sore throat, and myalgia. However, the most characteristic finding in secondary syphilis remains a rash that is classically identified as symmetric, macular, or papular, and involving the entire trunk and extremities, including the palms and soles.
When secondary syphilis is left untreated, late syphilis or tertiary syphilis can develop, which is characterized by cardiovascular involvement, including aortitis, gummatous syphilis (granulomatous nodules in a variety of organs but typically the skin and bones), or central nervous system involvement.1-3 The following case describes a patient with nondescript symptoms, including malaise and cough, who had a characteristic rash of secondary syphilis that was diagnosed and treated in our Houston-area community hospital.
In late autumn, a 30-year-old man presented to our community ED for evaluation of a cough productive of green sputum along with mild chest discomfort, malaise, and generalized myalgia, which were intermittent over the course of the past month. The patient denied rhinorrhea, fevers, chills, dyspnea, or any other systemic complaints. He also denied any sick contacts, but noted that his influenza vaccine was not up to date.
The patient denied any remote or recent medical or surgical history. He further denied taking any medications, and noted that his only medical allergy was to penicillin. His family history was noncontributory. Regarding his social history, the patient admitted to smoking one pack of cigarettes per day and to a daily alcohol intake of approximately one 6-pack of beer. He also admitted to frequently smoking crystal methamphetamine, which he stated he had last used 2 days prior to presentation. The patient said his current chest pain was similar to prior episodes, noting that when the pain occurred, he would temporarily stop smoking crystal methamphetamine.
Plain chest radiography, electrocardiogram, complete metabolic panel, complete blood count, B-natriuretic peptide, and troponin levels were all unremarkable. Due to the presence and nature of the patient’s rash, a rapid plasma reagin (RPR) screen was also taken, the results of which were reactive.
On further questioning, the patient admitted to having multiple female sexual partners with whom he used barrier protection sporadically. A more detailed physical examination revealed multiple painless ulcerations/chancres over the penile shaft and scrotum, without urethral drainage or inguinal lymphadenopathy. The patient denied dysuria or hematuria.
Since the patient was allergic to penicillin, he was given a single oral dose of azithromycin 2 g, and started on a 2-week course of oral doxycycline 100 mg. Further laboratory studies included gonorrhea and chlamydia cultures, both of which were negative. He was instructed to follow-up with his primary care physician for extended sexually transmitted infection (STI) panel-testing, including HIV, hepatitis, and confirmatory syphilis testing. Unfortunately, it is not known whether the patient complied with discharge instructions as he was lost to follow-up.
Diagnostic algorithms for syphilis, one of the best studied STIs, have changed with technological advancement, but diagnosis and treatment for the most part has remained mostly the same. The uniqueness of this case is really focused around the patient’s chief complaint. While it is classic to present with malaise, headache, and rash, our patient complained of cough productive of sputum with chest pain—a rare presentation of secondary syphilis. The fortuitous key finding of the truncal rash directed the emergency physician toward the appropriate diagnosis.