Syphilis: 7 Things to Know

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Nancy LeBrun on March 9, 2021
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    Syphilis is easy to overlook, and dangerous to leave untreated.
    Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection that can cause serious health problems if left untreated. You may not know you have it because early symptoms can go unnoticed. Syphilis not only endangers your health but also the health of your sexual partners. It’s a disease that can be invisible for years and still cause severe damage to your body and mind, but there is treatment to eliminate the infection. Find out the key facts about syphilis, how it’s treated, and how to protect yourself and others.
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    1. Syphilis is transmitted through many types of sex.
    Syphilis is highly contagious in the early stages. People get syphilis when they come in contact with a syphilis sore on another person. It can be through vaginal, anal or oral sex. The sores can be on or near the penis, on or inside the vagina, and on the anus or in the rectum. They can also be on the lips or mouth. The sores, called chancres, contain the bacteria that transmit the disease. Syphilis sores disrupt the healthy intact skin barrier and therefore increase the chance of contracting HIV.
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    2. The earliest symptom of syphilis can go unnoticed.
    The first stage of syphilis is called primary syphilis, which appears 10 days to 3 months after you have contracted it. In men, the first sign may be a sore or sores on the penis. In women, the first sign may be one or more sores around or inside the vagina. The sores develop where the syphilis entered your body. You might not even notice the chancre, because syphilis sores do not usually cause any pain and may be hidden. The sores go away after 3 to 6 weeks, but you still have syphilis in your bloodstream.
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    3. Untreated syphilis is dangerous and progresses in stages.
    The secondary stage of syphilis develops 2 to 10 weeks after you have the sore. A reddish or brown rash that does not itch appears, often on the palms or soles of the feet. You may feel tired and have a fever, swollen lymph nodes, a sore throat, sores in your mouth, hair loss, and body aches. These symptoms go away, but the syphilis does not. The third stage, called the latent stage, has no symptoms, but you may still be contagious and you are still infected. Not everyone has a latent stage; sometimes syphilis progresses directly to the last stage.
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    4. Late-stage syphilis causes serious health problems many years after a person is infected.
    The fourth stage of syphilis, called tertiary syphilis, usually appears many years after infection. Not everyone develops tertiary syphilis, and it is no longer contagious, but it can cause serious health problems and even death. It can permanently damage the heart, brain, nerves, bones, eyes and muscles. You may have trouble controlling your movements, lose your vision, and develop dementia. Syphilis can still be treated at this late stage, but any damage to the body or organs cannot be reversed.
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    5. Treatment for early-stage syphilis is painless and effective.
    If you think you may have been exposed to syphilis, the sooner you get treatment the better. When it’s caught early, antibiotics cure syphilis. Your healthcare provider can diagnose you with an exam and a blood test, and prescribe a shot of penicillin that will eradicate the infection. If you are allergic to penicillin, there are alternatives. There are no home remedies for syphilis, and you should refrain from sexual contact with others till the doctor clears you, so you don’t spread it to other people. You should tell prior sexual partners about your diagnosis.
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    6. Syphilis can be cured, but you can catch it again.
    Treatment for syphilis is highly effective but if you are exposed to it again, you can become reinfected. Abstaining from sexual contact is the only sure way to prevent infection, but condoms can reduce the risk of you giving or getting it. Refrain from sex entirely if you think you might have been exposed. Don’t be embarrassed to talk to your healthcare provider and follow up after treatment to make sure you are no longer infected. If you’re pregnant, it’s very important to get treated right away. Syphilis can cause birth defects and even death in an unborn baby.
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    7. Untreated syphilis can cause serious harm to unborn babies.
    If you’re pregnant, it’s very important to get treated right away. Syphilis increases your chance of miscarriage, and an alarming 40% of babies born to mothers with untreated syphilis are either stillborn or die shortly after birth. Babies who do survive can have serious birth defects such as bone damage, enlarged liver or spleen, anemia, or nerve damage that can cause the baby to be blind or deaf. Pregnant women who think they could have been exposed to syphilis either before or during the pregnancy should see their doctor immediately for treatment, as should their partners.
Syphilis: 7 Things to Know | Syphilis Symptoms, Treatment & Stages

About The Author

Nancy LeBrun is an Emmy- and Peabody award-winning writer and producer who has been writing about health and wellness for more than five years. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
  1. Syphilis. Cleveland Clinic.
  2. Syphilis. Mayo Clinic.
  3. Syphilis. Medline Plus, National Library of Medicine.
  4. Syphilis. Family Doctor.
  5. Syphilis CDC Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Last Review Date: 2021 Feb 24
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.