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Syphilitic aortitis (SA) is inflammation of the aorta associated with the tertiary stage of syphilis infection. SA begins as inflammation of the outermost layer of the blood vessel, including the blood vessels that supply the aorta itself with blood, the vasa vasorum. As SA worsens, the vasa vasorum undergo hyperplastic thickening of their walls thereby restricting blood flow and causing ischemia of the outer two-thirds of the aortic wall. Starved for oxygen and nutrients, elastic fibers become patchy and smooth muscle cells die. If the disease progresses, syphilitic aortitis leads to an aortic aneurysm. Unlike atherosclerosis, which typically manifests in older people, syphilitic aortitis typically affects those under the age of 50. It has become rare in the developed world with the advent of penicillin treatments after World War II.
Inflammatory involvement of tertiary syphilis begins at the adventitia of the aortic arch which progressively causes obliterative endarteritis of the vasa vasorum. This leads to narrowing of the lumen of the vasa vasorum, causing ischemic injury of the medial aortic arch and then finally loss of elastic support and dilation of the vessel. Dissection of the aortic arch is rare due to medial scarring. As a result of this advanced disease process, standard methods of angiography/angioplasty may be impossible for those with suspected coronary heart disease. However, these patients may be candidates for diagnostic CT as a less invasive modality. This disorder is also known eponymously as Heller-Döhle syndrome.