Syphilis, neurosyphilis, penicillin, and AIDS

J Infect Dis. 1991 Jun;163(6):1201-6. doi: 10.1093/infdis/163.6.1201.


Early neurosyphilis, characterized by meningitis, cranial nerve abnormalities, and cerebrospinal accidents, was first described in patients with syphilis who received inadequate courses of arsphenamine. Although more effective, penicillin at conventional doses does not yield treponemacidal levels in the central nervous system and probably does not eradicate the infecting organisms, suggesting that it works synergistically with the host's immune response in preventing neurosyphilis. Neurosyphilis after penicillin therapy was almost unheard of in the United States until it began to appear in human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-infected patients. Numerous cases of syphilitic meningitis, cranial nerve abnormalities, and strokes have been reported in the past decade; about one-half of reported patients had received penicillin therapy, often within the previous 6 months. Thus, more intensive diagnostic evaluation, perhaps including routine cerebrospinal fluid analysis, more intensive therapy, for example with at least three doses of benzathine penicillin, and far more rigorous follow-up are indicated in HIV-infected subjects with syphilis. Since the efficacy of conventional therapy is now uncertain, novel approaches to treatment deserve systematic evaluation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • HIV Infections / complications*
  • Humans
  • Neurosyphilis / etiology
  • Neurosyphilis / prevention & control*
  • Penicillins / therapeutic use*
  • Syphilis / complications
  • Syphilis / drug therapy*


  • Penicillins