Unusual clinical manifestation and challenging serological interpretation of syphilis: insights from a case report

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Background: The clinical manifestations of recent syphilis can be variable, with typical and atypical patterns. Several conditions may cause atypical clinical aspects, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) co-infection. Besides the clinical features, co-infections may completely alter syphilis serological tests, causing interpretative difficulties and diagnostic delays. Aim of the work is to describe the difficulties encountered during the diagnostic evaluation of atypical skin manifestations and of the serology for syphilis of an HIV-infected patient who had contracted it several times. Case presentation: In 2020, a 52-year old HIV-positive bisexual male patient was admitted to our department with a 4-month history of moderately itchy cutaneous lesions localized at his neck, trunk and arms. In 2013, the patient presented with a classic syphilitic roseola of the trunk and a secondary syphilis was diagnosed, with increased levels of rapid plasma reagin (RPR), Treponema pallidum hemagglutination assay (TPHA), anti-Treponema pallidum IgM and IgG Index. A second episode occurred in 2018, as a primary syphilis with multiple ulcerative lesions of the penis, and increased levels of RPR, IgG and IgM. In 2019, a further episode of secondary syphilis was treated with Doxycycline. In 2020, erythematous and papular lesions with vesicular components and urticarial erythema multiforme (EM)-like lesions were present at the neck, trunk and arms. Serological tests and Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT) for Treponema Pallidum were performed, as well as a cutaneous biopsy with histological and immunohistochemical evaluation of one lesion. NAAT was negative for T. pallidum. Serological test results were discordant with a new syphilis infection, showing only increased levels of RPR and anti-Treponema IgG. The cutaneous biopsy revealed a non specific histological pattern, while the immunohistochemical evaluation with anti-spirochetal antibodies was mandatory for the diagnosis of recent syphilis, showing clusters of rod-shaped elements, some of which with spiral form, focally present at the epidermis and adnexal structures. Conclusions: Nowadays, syphilis may present with atypical clinical and serological features. Physicians should be aware of these possible alterations and consider syphilis even in case of uncommon clinical aspect and unclear serological tests. Cutaneous biopsy and immunohistochemical exam may be mandatory for the diagnosis.

Original languageEnglish
Article number521
Pages (from-to)1-5
Number of pages5
JournalBMC Infectious Diseases
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021


  • Case report
  • HIV
  • Serological test
  • Syphilis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Infectious Diseases


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