Syphilis at a Glance
- A sexually transmitted disease (STD)
- Often has no symptoms
- Treatment available in the early stages
- Condoms offer good protection
STDs are very common. But we can protect ourselves and each other from STDs like syphilis. Learning more about syphilis is an important first step.
Here are some of the most common questions we hear people ask about syphilis. We hope you find the answers helpful, whether you think you may have syphilis, have been diagnosed with it, or are just curious about it.
What Is Syphilis?
You may have heard of syphilis, but many people are not sure what it is. Syphilis (SIFF-I-lis) is a sexually transmitted disease caused by bacteria that are passed sexually. It can infect the vagina, anus, urethra, or penis, as well as the lips and mouth.
Syphilis can be a serious health risk if it is not treated. About 36,000 American women and men become infected with syphilis every year.
What Are the Symptoms of Syphilis?
Often, syphilis has no symptoms or has such mild symptoms that a person doesn't notice them.
There are also several stages of syphilis, which may overlap. The stages may be separated by latent stages, or times when no symptoms are present.
Symptoms vary with each stage. But the syphilis symptoms do not always occur in the same order.
- Primary Stage — A painless sore or open, wet ulcer, which is called a chancre, appears. You may have just one chancre or a few. Chancres usually appear about three weeks after infection, but may take up to 90 days. Without treatment, they last 3–6 weeks. Chancres can appear on the genitals, in the vagina, on the cervix, lips, mouth, breasts, or anus. Swollen glands may also occur during the primary phase.
- Secondary Stage — Other symptoms often appear 3–6 weeks after the sores appear. These syphilis symptoms may come and go for up to two years. They include body rashes that last 2–6 weeks — often on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. There are many other symptoms, including mild fever, fatigue, sore throat, hair loss, weight loss, swollen glands, headache, and muscle pains.
- Late Stage — One out of three people who have syphilis that is not treated suffer serious damage to the nervous system, heart, brain, or other organs, and death may result. This can occur 1–20 years after the start of the infection.
How Can I Know If I Have Syphilis?
A health care provider can do tests to see if you have syphilis, whether or not you have syphilis symptoms. If you have open sores, your health care provider will test any fluid that comes from sores. Otherwise, your health care provider may test your blood.
Is There a Treatment for Syphilis?
Yes. The early stages of syphilis are easy to treat. If you have syphilis, you will need to take an antibiotic. Your partner(s) may also be treated at the same time.
Keep in mind that any damage caused by syphilis in the later stages cannot be undone. If you are at risk for syphilis, regular testing will help you catch the infection at its earliest, most treatable phase.
Where Can I Get a Test or Treatment for Syphilis?
Staff at your local Planned Parenthood health center, many other clinics, health departments, and private health care providers can diagnose syphilis and help you get any treatment you may need.
How Is Syphilis Spread?
Syphilis is spread by contact with syphilis sores. Direct contact can occur during
- vaginal and anal intercourse
- oral sex
- kissing (much less commonly)
Syphilis is especially contagious in the early stage of the disease, when sores are present. The liquid that oozes from them is very infectious. People are usually not contagious during the latent stages of the first four years of syphilis infections. Untreated syphilis remains latent for many years or a lifetime, but can be spread from a pregnant woman to her fetus.
Syphilis and Pregnancy
Syphilis can be spread from a woman to her fetus during pregnancy. The effect of syphilis on a fetus is very serious. If untreated, the risks of stillbirth or serious birth defects are high. Birth defects include damage to the heart, brain, and bones, as well as blindness. It is very important for pregnant women to consider testing for syphilis early, and, sometimes, throughout their pregnancies. Pregnant women with syphilis can be treated to prevent harm to the fetus.
How Can I Prevent Getting Syphilis?
There is a lot you can do to prevent getting syphilis.
- Abstain from vaginal and anal intercourse and oral sex.
- If you choose to have vaginal or anal intercourse, use female or latex condoms every time.
- Giving or getting syphilis during oral sex is rare, but you can further reduce your risk by using condoms or latex or plastic barriers.
How Can I Prevent Spreading Syphilis?
If you have syphilis, there are several ways to prevent spreading it to other people. You can
- Inform your sex partner(s) of the infection.
- Have no sex until treatment is complete.
- Be sure your sex partner(s) is/are tested and treated before having sex again.
- Once you are cured and start having sex again, use female or latex condoms every time you have vaginal or anal intercourse.
- Use a condom, Sheer Glyde dam, dental dam, or piece of plastic wrap for oral sex.
Find Dr. Cullins' Answers to Common Sexual Health Questions
Q&A with Dr. Cullins