The great imitator on the rise: ocular and optic nerve manifestations in patients with newly diagnosed syphilis

Ainat Klein, Naomi Fischer, Michaella Goldstein, Shiri Shulman, Zohar Habot-Wilner*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: Ocular manifestations of syphilis have been reported in 2–10% of systemic infection. The purpose of this study was to report the incidence of ocular syphilis and various ocular manifestations, particularly optic nerve involvement, in newly diagnosed cases. Methods: This was a retrospective study. Medical records of newly diagnosed syphilis patients between January 2009 and January 2017 in a tertiary medical centre were reviewed. Results: There were 123 new systemic syphilis cases out of 569,222 (0.02%) admissions to the Tel Aviv Medical Center during the study period. Ninety-three of the 123 patients (76%) underwent ophthalmological examination. Twenty-three of the 93 patients (25%, mean age 48.6 ± 12.9 years, 20 males) had ocular syphilis, and in 12/23 (52%) patients, the ocular symptoms and findings prompted syphilis investigation. Eighteen of the 23 (78%) had optic nerve involvement, and the most common was inflammatory disc oedema. Older age (p = 0.0005) and tertiary stage disease (p = 0.0441) were associated with ocular manifestations and the presence of optic nerve findings. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was associated with ocular but not optic nerve findings. Treatment included intravenous penicillin G, and four patients with severe optic neuropathy were also treated with systemic corticosteroids. Visual acuity significantly improved in most patients (p < 0.05). Conclusion: Ocular syphilis was found in one-quarter of the patients diagnosed with systemic syphilis and preceded the diagnosis of systemic disease in one-half of them. Optic nerve involvement was a common manifestation. A high index of suspicion for Treponema infection is required in patients presenting with optic nerve involvement to facilitate prompt diagnosis and treatment. Post-treatment visual outcome was good.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e641-e647
JournalActa Ophthalmologica
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jun 2019


  • Treponema pallidum
  • inflammatory disc oedema
  • neurosyphilis
  • optic neuropathy
  • syphilis
  • uveitis


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