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All sexually transmitted infections are important to discuss and treat, and having an STI is incredibly common. However, in Missouri and across the country, syphilis rates are increasing at an alarming rate. So, what’s the deal with syphilis testing and treatment?

There were 30,644 cases reported in the United States in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control, a 10 percent increase from 2016 and a 72 percent increase from 2013. From 2017 to 2018, the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services reported a 366 percent increase in the number of syphilis diagnoses in Jasper County. And that’s just in one county in one year! What’s going on? Here are the answers to some of the most common questions about syphilis.

How is syphilis transmitted?

Syphilis is an STI, meaning it spreads during vaginal, anal or oral sex. People don’t have to have syphilis symptoms to spread the infection. However, syphilis is NOT transmitted through casual contact, such as sharing food, drinks, or towels, hugging, holding hands, coughing or sneezing.

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

In its early stages, the main symptom of syphilis is sores. Also known as chancres, the sores can appear on the vagina, anus, scrotum, penis, lips or mouth. Sometimes, people who have syphilis may not notice the sores or may mistake them for a pimple or ingrown hair. The sores can come and go over time, but if they go away, the infected person still has syphilis.

During the secondary stage, a rash may appear on the palms of the hands, the bottoms of the feet and other parts of the body. The rash can last two to six weeks and can come and go over a two-year period. Like the sores, the rash can be easily mistaken for an allergic reaction or other illnesses, as they may not itch and could be accompanied by a headache, a sore throat or a slight fever.

How is syphilis treated?

Fortunately, syphilis is curable with antibiotics. If you test positive for syphilis and need treatment, it’s important that your partner(s) also get tested and receive treatment so you’re not re-infected. If you’re receiving treatment for syphilis, it’s also important to do the following:

  • Take all of your medicine the way your doctor tells you to, even if your symptoms go away sooner.

  • Don’t have any kind of sex (vaginal, anal, oral) until you and your partner(s) have finished your treatments, and any sores are totally healed.

  • Don’t share your medicine with anyone. If your partner(s) needs treatment, they should each get their own separate doses of antibiotics. Make sure you both take all of the medicine prescribed to you.

  • Once if you finish your treatment and the syphilis is gone, it’s still possible to get a new infection again if you’re exposed in the future.

If left untreated, syphilis can cause serious health problems in its later stages, including tumors, blindness, organ damage and paralysis. Although syphilis can still be cured in the later stages, the treatment will not reverse any previous damage. Pregnant people who have untreated syphilis can also pass it on to their children.

What can I do to prevent syphilis?

One way to prevent syphilis is to use condoms and/or dental dams during sex. The sores are incredibly contagious, although syphilis can can still be spread if there aren’t any symptoms. If abstaining from sex isn’t an option, practicing safer sex is the next best way to prevent syphilis.

Another thing to do is to get yourself tested for STIs. Since syphilis can be symptomless, one of the only ways to know if you have syphilis, or any other STI, is to get tested. You can get an STI test by making an appointment online at any Planned Parenthood location. All of our locations offer STI testing, whether or not you have symptoms.

We offer free STI testing for those who are eligible, as some restrictions may apply. If you’re interested in free STI testing, please make an appointment online today or give us a call at 314-531-7526 or 417-883-3800 for more information.

Allison Reilly is the Marketing and Communications Coordinator at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri.

Tags: STD testing, sexually transmitted infections, STIs, syphilis