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Syphilis Overview

On This Page: Symptoms | Stages | Transmission | Risk Factors | Prevention

What Is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It is easily curable with antibiotics. However, without proper treatment, syphilis can cause serious and permanent problems like brain damage, paralysis, and blindness. The only way to know if you have syphilis is to get tested.

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Syphilis is a common STD that can be easily treated and cured with only one round of antibiotics when detected early. Order our confidential syphilis test then walk right into the lab nearest you. No appointment necessary.

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What Are Syphilis Symptoms?

Syphilis develops in stages, and each stage may come with different symptoms. However, syphilis can be confusing and sneaky. Stages may overlap or may not always happen in the same order. Sores caused by syphilis may be hidden, since they can appear in hard-to-see areas. Syphilis can also go through periods when there are no symptoms for years.1 Even when signs are apparent, syphilis may still be overlooked. Syphilis has been called “The Great Pretender” because its symptoms in men and women can seem like many other diseases.

At any stage, syphilis can spread and cause damage to the brain and nervous system (neurosyphilis) and the eye (ocular syphilis).

Primary Syphilis

The first sign of syphilis is usually:

  • A small painless sore called a chancre
    • Appears at the spot bacteria entered your body (often on, around, or inside the genitals or anus/rectum and sometimes on the lips or mouth)
    • Usually single, but may be multiple

Chancres usually develop within 3 weeks of infection, although symptoms may appear from 10 to 90 days after infection.2 Because a chancre is usually painless and may be hidden inside the vagina or rectum, a person may not even know they have primary stage syphilis.

Chancres heal on their own within 3-6 weeks. Even when a chancre disappears, the syphilis bacteria are still in the body unless a person receives treatment.

Secondary Syphilis

While a chancre is healing or several weeks after it has healed, a person with syphilis may progress to the secondary stage.

Secondary syphilis symptoms include: 

  • Skin rashes which usually aren’t itchy
  • Lesions in the mouth, vagina, or anus
  • Fever
  • Swollen glands in neck, groin, or armpits
  • Weight loss
  • Hair loss
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Muscle ache
  • Fatigue

Symptoms will go away whether you get treatment or not.  They may come back later or not return at all. But without the right treatment, syphilis stays in the body, and the infection can progress to the latent or even tertiary stage of syphilis.

Latent Syphilis

Latent syphilis symptoms include: 

  • No symptoms– even for years

Although latent syphilis is silent with no visible signs or symptoms of syphilis present, the infection isn’t gone. During the early part of the latent stage, a person is contagious, even when no signs are present.

Tertiary Syphilis

Many people with untreated syphilis don’t develop tertiary syphilis. However, when it happens, it’s very destructive. Tertiary syphilis can impact many different organ systems and cause serious problems and even death.

Tertiary syphilis symptoms may include:3

  • Large sores called gummata, which appear inside the body or on the skin
  • Strokes
  • Numbness
  • Deep, boring bone pain
  • Heart problems
  • Vision problems or blindness

While syphilis can be treated at any stage, treatment does not reverse the damage that has already been done.

Learn more about syphilis symptoms.  

How Do You Get Syphilis?

Syphilis is most commonly spread through skin-to-skin or mucous membrane contact with someone’s syphilitic sore, also known as a chancre. This contact most commonly happens during vaginal, anal, and oral sex or sexual contact. Syphilis is contagious during its primary and secondary stages, and it can sometimes be spread during the early latent period (when symptoms stop showing).

Syphilis can also be transmitted from pregnant women to their baby, which is called congenital syphilis (CS). Congenital syphilis can be dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that up to 40% of babies born to women with untreated syphilis may be stillborn, or die from the infection as a newborn.4

Who Is At Risk?

Anybody who is sexually active can get syphilis during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

You may have an increased risk of getting syphilis if you:

  • Have unprotected sex
  • Have partner(s) who have tested positive for syphilis
  • Have multiple sex partners
  • Are a man who has sex with men (MSM)5
  • Have HIV

The CDC also recommends all pregnant women get tested for syphilis during their first prenatal visit.6

Is It Curable?

Yes. Syphilis is easily curable with prescription antibiotics. When caught in the early stages, syphilis is simple to cure with a single injection of penicillin.

Depending on how long you’ve had syphilis or how the infection has progressed, the amount and type of treatment may vary. Treatment kills the syphilis bacteria, but it does not repair the damage that’s been done.

How Do You Prevent Syphilis?

The best way to prevent syphilis is to not have sex, but having safer sex helps reduce your risk. Using a latex condom or dental dam every time you have sex provides a barrier against direct contact with a sore. However, sometimes sores pop up in areas that aren’t covered, and contact with these sores can spread syphilis.

Limiting your sexual partners or having a mutually monogamous relationship with a sex partner who has tested negative for syphilis can help you prevent infection. If you think you or your sexual partner(s) has syphilis, get tested. Regular STD testing keeps you informed about your sexual health status and empowers early detection and treatment.

  1. “Stages of Syphilis.” Michigan Medicine. https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/tm6404
  2. “Syphilis - CDC Fact Sheet (Detailed).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/syphilis/stdfact-syphilis-detailed.htm
  3. “Syphilis.” Merck Manual Professional Version. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/infectious-diseases/sexually-transmitted-diseases-stds/syphilis.
  4. “Congenital Syphilis - CDC Fact Sheet.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/syphilis/stdfact-congenital-syphilis.htm
  5. “Screening Recommendations and Considerations Referenced in Treatment Guidelines and Original Sources.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/tg2015/screening-recommendations.htm
  6. “Syphilis & MSM (Men Who Have Sex With Men) - CDC Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/syphilis/stdfact-msm-syphilis.htm

Medically Reviewed by on February 6, 2020


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