Syphilis

What is it?

Syphilis is an STI caused by a bacterium; it can damage your body’s major organs over time and needs immediate treatment.

What are the symptoms?

Most people who have syphilis don’t even know it. Because symptoms don’t show, people pass on the infection without knowing it.

Symptoms may appear 3 to 90 days after sexual contact with an infected person. Once the bacteria enter the body, the disease goes through a few stages.

Primary stage:

The sore may appear on the on the penis, buttocks, anus, vagina, throat or any other part of the body where syphilis bacteria entered the body. The sore is usually firm, round, and painless. Because the sore is painless, it can easily go unnoticed. The sore lasts 3 to 6 weeks and heals regardless of whether or not a person is treated. However, if the infected person does not receive treatment the infection progresses to the secondary stage.

As the symptoms could be missed during the primary stage of the infection, it is possible that people who are already infected with syphilis do not know that they contracted this STI.

Secondary stage:

This stage usually starts with a rash on one or more areas of the body. Rashes can appear from the time when the primary sore is healing to several weeks after the sore has healed. The rash usually does not cause itching. This rash may appear as rough, red, or reddish brown spots both on the palms of the hands and/or the bottoms of the feet. However, this rash may look different on other parts of the body and can look like rashes caused by other diseases.

Large, raised, gray or white lesions may develop in warm, moist areas such as the mouth, underarm or groin region. Sometimes rashes associated with secondary syphilis are so faint that they are not noticed. Other symptoms of secondary syphilis include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue. The symptoms of secondary syphilis will go away with or without treatment. Without appropriate treatment, the infection will progress to the latent and possibly late stages of disease.

Late and Latent Stages

The latent (hidden) stage of syphilis begins when primary and secondary symptoms disappear. Without treatment, the infected person will continue to have syphilis in their body even though there are no signs or symptoms. This latent stage can last for years. About 15% of people who have not been treated for syphilis develop late stage syphilis, which can appear 10-30 years after infection began. Symptoms of the late stage of syphilis include difficulty in muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness, and dementia. In the late stages of syphilis, the disease damages the internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. This damage can result in death.

How do I get it?

Syphilis is transmitted from person to person by direct contact with syphilis sores. Sores occur on the external genitals, vagina, anus, or in the rectum. Sores also can occur on the lips and in the mouth. Syphilis can be transmitted during vaginal, anal, or oral sexual contact. Pregnant women with the disease can pass it to their unborn children.

Learn more about syphilis

What can it do to me?

Initial symptoms will simply go away without treatment. But you’ll still have syphilis, and the disease may spread through your body. Years later, it may cause severe damage to all major organs.

Can I pass it on to my baby?

Yes. If you’re not treated, you can pass it on to the unborn baby. Your baby may develop serious health problems, or even die.

What are the tests?

A doctor in the community or at a sexual health clinic can diagnose syphilis through a special blood test. Syphilis also can be diagnosed by examining material from a syphilis sore.

What are the treatments?

Fortunately, antibiotics can treat a syphilis infection in the early stages.

Do I need to follow up?

Yes. Follow-up tests for syphilis are very important because they will show whether treatment was effective, or if you need further treatment. Your doctor or sexual health clinic will tell you when to return for follow-up tests.

Remember:

  • If you have an untreated STI like syphilis, it’s easier to get other STIs such as HIV from a person who has it or to transmit HIV to another person.
  • It’s easier to get HIV from oral sex if you already have syphilis.
  • Pregnant women should have a blood test for syphilis.
  • It’s possible to have more than one infection at a time, so get tested for other STIs.

How can I prevent it?

Practice safe sex. Use condoms. This will definitely lower the risk of getting syphilis or other STIs.

What about my sexual partner(s)?

No matter what stage you’re in, you need to tell any sexual partners so they can be tested and treated if infected.

Note: If you have syphilis, abstain from any sex (anal, oral or vaginal), even with a condom, until your doctor is sure your infection is treated effectively.

How do I tell my partner?

If you have concerns about telling your partner(s), contact a public health nurse. The public health nurse can suggest ways to handle the situation or they will contact your partner(s) for you. Of course, your name will be kept confidential.

If you decide to talk to your partner(s) yourself, learn how to talk comfortably about it.

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