This webpage is for information purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.
Syphilis is caused by a bacteria (Treponema pallidum) that enters the blood stream through the mucous membranes or broken skin. The blood then carries the bacteria to the body’s organs and tissues.
Syphilis is spread from person to person through contact with a syphilis sore (ulcer or chancre) through vaginal, oral and/or anal sex.
Signs & Symptoms
It can take between 10 days and 3 months for the first signs of syphilis to appear. Some men or women infected with syphilis don’t show any signs or symptoms.
If left untreated, a syphilis infection will happen in 3 stages.
Stage 1: Primary
The first sign is a painless sore (chancre) on the penis, anus, labia, vagina, cervix, throat or lips. This is an easy sign to miss, as chancres usually heal and disappear in 1-5 weeks. Swollen glands are another first sign of infection.
Stage 2: Secondary
In this stage, skin lesions or a rash appear all over the body, including the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. These lesions might also appear in the mouth and the genital area. This rash is easy to confuse with other skin conditions.
A person in the secondary stage of syphilis might also experience:
- swollen glands
- a sore throat
- patchy hair loss
While these symptoms will subside even without treatment, the infection will remain in the blood, organs, and other tissue. With no treatment, the rash may recur over the next 1-2 years. This is a very contagious time.
Stage 3: Latent Stage
If left untreated the bacteria spreads to all parts of the body. Since there are no outward signs of the disease in this stage, a blood test is the only way to know if syphilis is still present.
Between 3-30 years after the primary infection, the bacteria will seriously damage various body organs such as the heart, large blood vessels, bones, joints or central nervous system.
Diagnosis & Treatment
Your doctor will test for syphilis by taking a swab sample from a sore or chancre. Your doctor will also order blood tests to check for certain antibodies that may be present. This test will detect the disease about 1 month after the chancre appears.
Blood tests also show whether a person is responding to the treatment. Once you have had syphilis, blood tests will show this for the rest of your life, even after successful treatment. But you’ll no longer be a risk for complications, or be able to spread the disease to others.
If syphilis is treated early there should be no long-term physical complications.
A single shot of penicillin will likely cure you if you’re in the first stage of infection. If you’re in the secondary stage you’ll require longer treatment with penicillin.
Treatment will cure syphilis but won’t reverse any damage already done to internal organs. After treatment, blood tests will show that the disease has been cured and that there are no flare-ups or re-infection. Without treatment, about 33% of those infected develop serious complications later in life.
Left untreated, syphilis will seriously damage your heart, large blood vessels, liver and brain. If you’re pregnant, you can pass it on to your unborn child, which can cause serious harm to the baby. (All pregnant women are treated for syphilis.)
You can prevent getting or spreading syphilis by:
- Avoiding sexual contact with anyone who has a sore in the genital area.
- Using condoms every time you have sex.
Getting tested for STIs with every sexual partner before becoming sexually involved.
- Avoid all sexual contact - even with a condom/latex barrier - until your doctor says all your blood tests are satisfactory.
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