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What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. Syphilis is passed from person to person through direct contact with a painless syphilis sore, and generally occurs during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Sores develop mainly on the external genitals, vagina, anus, or in the rectum, but they can also develop on the lips and in the mouth.

What are the symptoms and stages of syphilis?

There are four stages of syphilis infection: primary, secondary, tertiary, and latent stage. Each stage has its own set of symptoms, but the stages (and symptoms) may overlap. It is important to remember that symptoms may be entirely painless.

Primary stage: The primary stage usually occurs 120 - 90 days (usually 21 days) after becoming infected, and without treatment, this stage can last for 3-6 months. The main symptoms of a primary infection are painless sores that occur at the site of infection (usually near the mouth, genitals, or anus). The sores can be located inside the anus and mouth, or under the foreskin (the skin covering the tip of an uncircumcised penis), so they are not always noticeable. These painless sores may go away without treatment, even though the disease is still in the body.

Secondary stage: The secondary stage usually starts after the primary stage (or 3-6 weeks after infection), but symptoms of the secondary stage may not appear until up to 6 months after infection.

Symptoms in the secondary stage include non-itchy rashes that usually appear on the palms of the hand or soles of the feet. Symptoms may also include fever, swollen glands (neck, armpits, or groin), sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue (feeling extremely tired).

These symptoms can go away without treatment (usually within 6-8 weeks), even though the disease is still in the body. About 25% of people with secondary stage HPV experience one or more reoccurrence of these symptoms (meaning the symptoms come back), usually within 1 year of infection. Without treatment, this stage lasts for up to 2 years.

Tertiary stage: The tertiary stage usually occurs 1-20 years after an infection. One out of three people who have syphilis and do not get treated end up progress to this stage with serious organ damage, paralysis, mental problems, blindness, deafness, heart failure, and even death. The tertiary stage usually occurs 1-20 years after an infection.

Latent stage: The latent stage is a period in which there are no symptoms or obvious signs of a syphilis infection, even though the disease is still in the body. The primary, secondary, and tertiary stages can be interrupted by latent stages.

How is syphilis spread?

Syphilis is spread by skin-to-skin contact with syphilis sores through oral, vaginal, and anal sex. Very rarely it can spread through kissing. It can also be spread from mother to child during pregnancy through the placenta (which surrounds the fetus), causing congenital syphilis.

It is important to know that you can get syphilis even when you can't see sores. They can be painless, small, and inside the body, so they can go unnoticed. So you might not know that you have sores, but you could still give syphilis to others. Getting treated will eliminate your risk of transmitting syphilis to your partner.

How can I prevent giving or getting syphilis?

  • Treatment – syphilis is curable
  • Abstain from (avoid) sexual contact until treatment is complete, especially if there is a sore of lesion
  • If you have vaginal or anal sex, use latex male condoms or internal (female) condoms (but female condoms do not protect as well as male condoms)
  • If you have oral sex, use condoms or a latex or plastic barrier

Am I more infectious with syphilis at certain times?

Syphilis can be spread very easily in the primary stage when sores are present. These sores are sometimes very small, inside the body, and difficult to see, but the sores (even when painless) and the liquid that oozes from them are very infectious.

How can I get tested for syphilis?

If you have syphilis sores, you should go to your doctor or to Eastern or Druid clinic to get tested as soon as possible. Syphilis can be diagnosed by testing fluid taken from sores or with blood tests. If you have sores, a test can be done on the swab of the infected area. The infection might not show up on a test for a few days after the first sore appears.

If you get a blood test, a doctor or other healthcare provider will take a sample of your blood to check for antibodies (what your body produces to help fight infection) to the syphilis infection. Blood tests can’t reliably detect if you have syphilis until 3 months after exposure. At that point, a blood test is important because syphilis can be mistaken for other conditions (such as allergies or herpes outbreaks), and treatment for those conditions will not cure syphilis.

What is the treatment for syphilis?

If you have sexual contact with a person who might have syphilis, go to a doctor for preventative treatment, even though it might be too early to tell whether you are infected. A doctor can give you preventative treatment without a positive diagnosis.

Syphilis is easy to cure in its early stages. A single shot of penicillin, an antibiotic, will cure a person who has had syphilis for less than a year. Additional doses are needed to treat someone who has had syphilis for longer than a year. Treatment will kill the syphilis bacterium and prevent further damage, but it will not repair damage that syphilis may have already caused. For people who are allergic to penicillin, other antibiotics are available to treat syphilis. Syphilis may not be curable by the tertiary stage.

What will happen if I have syphilis, but I don’t get treated?

Syphilis can cause serious complications in males and females, including:

  • Neurosyphilis (infection of the nervous system)
  • Heart disease
  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Paralysis
  • Death

Untreated pregnant woman can pass syphilis to her child during pregnancy.