Syphilis symptoms can be hard to notice, and come and go over time. So the best way to know if you have syphilis is to get tested.
You might not notice any signs of syphilis.
Syphilis is sneaky, because you or your partner may not have any symptoms that you see or feel. Most of the time, people don’t even realize they have syphilis — that’s part of the reason it’s a common infection (and why it’s so important to get tested).
The signs of syphilis can be so mild you don’t even notice them. Sometimes people confuse syphilis symptoms with other things, like pimples or rashes. Syphilis symptoms come and go over time, but that doesn’t mean the infection goes away. The ONLY way to get rid of syphilis is to take medicine for it.
Syphilis leads to serious problems if you don’t treat it. But it’s usually easy to cure it with antibiotics when you treat it early. That’s why regular STD testing is so important if you have sex, no matter how healthy you seem.
What are the symptoms of syphilis?
Syphilis can be kind of confusing because there are a few different stages, and they can overlap or happen around the same time. And there may be times when you have no symptoms at all — but the infection will still be there until you get it treated. Symptoms can vary with each stage, and they might not always happen in the same order for everyone.
A syphilis sore (called a chancre) pops up — that sore is where the syphilis infection entered your body. Chancres are usually firm, round, and painless, or sometimes open and wet. There’s often only 1 sore, but you may have more.
Chancres can show up on your vulva, vagina, anus, penis, scrotum, and rarely, your lips or mouth. The sores may also hide deep in your vagina, under your foreskin, inside your rectum, and other places that are hard to see.
Syphilis sores are SUPER contagious and easily pass the infection to other people during sex. It’s easy to mistake a chancre for an ingrown hair, pimple, or harmless bump. And because the sores aren’t painful and can live in hidden places, you may not notice them.
Chancres typically show up anywhere between 3 weeks and 3 months after you get the infection. The sores usually last about 3 to 6 weeks and then go away on their own — with or without treatment. But if you don’t get treated, you still have syphilis, even if the sores are gone. You have to take medication to cure syphilis and stop it from moving to the next stage.
Secondary stage symptoms include rashes on the palms of your hands, soles of your feet, or other parts of your body. The secondary syphilis rash is sometimes hard to see, and it usually doesn’t itch. You may feel sick and have mild flu-like symptoms, like a slight fever, feeling tired, sore throat, swollen glands, headache, and muscle aches. You can also have sores in your mouth, vagina, or anus, and weight or hair loss.
Secondary stage symptoms (syphilis rash) can last 2 to 6 weeks at a time, and may come and go for up to 2 years. They’re similar to other common illnesses, so it can be hard to tell it’s syphilis. The symptoms from this stage will go away by themselves with or without treatment. But unless you get treated for syphilis, you’ll still have the infection in your body and it can move into the dangerous later stages. That’s why STD testing is so important.
In between the secondary stage and the late stage, there may be times when your syphilis infection is latent (there are no signs or symptoms at all) for months or even years — but you still need treatment to get rid of it. People who have had syphilis for a long time face serious health problems. Late stages of syphilis can cause tumors, blindness, and paralysis. It can damage your nervous system, brain and other organs, and may even kill you.
Syphilis is easily curable with antibiotics in the early stages. If you get treatment late, it will still cure the infection and stop future damage to your body. But the damage that late stage syphilis has already caused can’t be changed or healed. The complications from late stage syphilis can happen 10-20 years after you first get infected.