What Everyone Needs To Know About Syphilis

Syphilis is an STD (a sexually transmitted disease) that has the potential to cause severe health problems if it isn’t treated. 

Syphilis Defined

Syphilis is an infectious disease with potentially serious consequences if it remains untreated. Syphilis spreads through sexual contact. The disease is divided into stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. Different stages of syphilis have their own signs and symptoms, or lack thereof.

How Does Syphilis Spread?

Syphilis spreads through sexual contact. Syphilis sores appear on or near the penis, vagina, anus, and mouth. You can contract syphilis through any act of vaginal, oral, or anal sex if you make direct contact with a syphilis sore. A pregnant woman with syphilis can infect her unborn baby with the disease.

What Does Syphilis Look Like?

As mentioned above, syphilis is divided into stages, with each stage having different signs and symptoms. In the primary stage, an infected person will generally have one or more syphilis sores near their original infection site. The sores usually occur on or near the genitals, around the anus, in the rectum, or inside or close to the mouth. Most syphilis sores are free of pain, round, and firm to the touch. Symptoms of secondary stage syphilis include fever, swollen lymph nodes, and rashes on the skin. In the primary and secondary stages, the symptoms of syphilis can be mild and consequently overlooked. The latent stage of syphilis gets its name from its lack of symptoms. Tertiary syphilis involves more severe medical issues. In this stage, the disease can affect the brain, heart, and other organs. Doctors use a range of different tests to diagnose tertiary syphilis.

What Can I Do To Reduce My Risk Of Contracting Syphilis?

Abstaining from sexual contact is the only guaranteed way to avoid an STD like syphilis. There are ways to reduce your risk if you are sexually active:

* Restrict yourself to a monogamous relationship with a partner who has tested negative for syphilis.

* Use latex condoms properly in every sexual encounter. Condoms can protect you from syphilis by preventing contact with syphilis sores. Condoms are not a foolproof defense against syphilis because sex may involve intimate contact with areas not covered by a condom. Syphilis sores in these areas can still transmit the disease even if you use a condom.

What Is My Risk for Syphilis?

If you are sexually active, any unprotected sex (vaginal, anal, or oral) puts you at risk of contracting syphilis. Talk honestly about your sexual activity with your health care provider to find out whether or not you need testing for syphilis and other STDs.

A pregnant woman’s first prenatal visit should include a syphilis test.

Regular syphilis testing is important if you fall into the following risk groups:

* If you are a man who has sex with men,

* If you have HIV, or

* If a current or former sexual partner has tested positive for syphilis.

Why Is Syphilis A Concern For Pregnant Women?

If you are infected with syphilis and become pregnant, the infection may be passed to your child before it’s born. Syphilis can cause serious pregnancy complications, including low birth weight, premature delivery, or a stillborn birth (that is, a dead baby). Receiving at least one syphilis test during your pregnancy is a vitally important way to protect your child. If you test positive, you should seek immediate treatment. 

It is possible for a baby infected with syphilis to be born without showing any signs or symptoms. However, serious medical problems can develop within a few weeks of birth if syphilis is not treated immediately. Untreated syphilis in infants can cause cataracts, seizures, deafness, and even death.

What Are The Symptoms Of Syphilis?

As already discussed, adult syphilis occurs in stages, each of which has different signs and symptoms. Here is a more detailed breakdown:

* Primary Syphilis

At this stage of the disease, you may see one or more sores appear. Primary syphilis sores are found most often around the site of initial infection. These sores are usually round, firm, and free from pain. Because syphilis sores are typically painless, they are easy to overlook. Syphilis sores heal after approximately three to six weeks whether or not you receive treatment for the disease. Treatment is still essential even after the sores disappear; without treatment, the disease will progress to the next stage.

* Secondary Syphilis

In secondary syphilis, you may have skin rashes and/or mucous membrane lesions. These lesions are sores in the anus, vagina, or mouth. The secondary stage of syphilis usually begins with the appearance of a rash on one or more areas. This stage can start anytime from while your primary sores are still healing to several weeks after the sores have healed. Syphilis rashes can look like red or reddish-brown spots or rough patches of skin on the palms of your hands and/or the bottoms of your feet. Secondary syphilis rashes are not usually painful or itchy, and sometimes they are so faint that you may not notice them. Secondary syphilis may or may not also have these other symptoms: fever, headaches, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, weight loss, patchy hair loss, muscle pain, and fatigue (extreme tiredness). As with primary syphilis, your secondary syphilis symptoms will eventually go away with or without treatment. Treatment is vital to prevent further progression.

* Latent Syphilis

In the latent stage of syphilis, the disease does not have any signs or symptoms. Syphilis can stay in your body for years in the latent stage if you do not get treatment.

* Tertiary Syphilis

Not every syphilis infection proceeds to tertiary syphilis. When it does develop, tertiary syphilis can cause severe damage to the heart and circulatory system and the brain and nervous system. Tertiary syphilis usually begins 10 to 30 years after you were first infected. Tertiary syphilis damages your internal organs and can be fatal.

Neurosyphilis and Ocular Syphilis

When left untreated, syphilis can spread to the nervous system or the eyes. Neurosyphilis affects the nervous system, while the eyes are affected by ocular syphilis. These complications can occur during any stage of syphilis.

Neurosyphilis symptoms:

* Severe headaches,

* Paralysis (inability to move your body parts),

* Diminished muscle coordination,

* Numbness, and

* Dementia.

Ocular syphilis can include vision changes or blindness.

How Can I Find Out If I Have Syphilis?

A healthcare provider can generally diagnose syphilis with a simple blood test. In some instances, your doctor may diagnose syphilis by taking fluid from a sore and testing it.

Is Syphilis Curable?

Yes! Syphilis is curable with prescribed antibiotics from your healthcare provider. Note that syphilis treatment may not undo any damage that the disease caused before you get treated.

Can I Get Syphilis Again After I Have Been Treated?

Contracting syphilis does not give you any protection from getting the disease again, and you can be re-infected even after receiving successful treatment. Laboratory testing is the only sure way to determine whether or not you have syphilis. Your healthcare provider should order follow-up testing after treatment to confirm that the disease is gone.

Even though a sex partner has to have sores to infect you, these can easily be overlooked. Syphilis sores may appear inside the vagina, mouth, or anus, or under the foreskin of the penis. Unless you are certain that all of your sex partners have tested negative for syphilis, you are still at risk for getting it again.

To receive more STD information and STD clinic referrals, contact the CDC-INFO contact center:

1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636)

TTY: (888) 232-6348


Content source: Division of STD Prevention, National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention