Amy Scholten, MPH
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). If left untreated, syphilis can cause brain, nerve, tissue damage, and death. Fortunately, syphilis can be treated with antibiotics.
Syphilis is caused by specific bacteria. It is transmitted through direct contact with a syphilis lesion. This may occur when:
Factors that may increase your chance of getting syphilis include:
Symptoms will depend on what stage the syphilis is in. There are 3 main stages as well as a resting phase.
A single lesion will usually appear. It will occur in the area where the infection was originally passed. Common sites include the genitals, rectum, tongue, inside of the mouth, or lips.
It will start as a raised and painless lesion called a chancre. It will gradually break down to form an ulcer. It usually lasts for 3-6 weeks. The ulcer will heal on its own.
Without treatment, the infection may move to the secondary stage. This can happen even if the ulcers are no longer visible.
This stage is marked by the appearance of a non-itchy rash. This rash may appear as rough, red, or reddish brown spots on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. It is also possible for different rashes to appear in other places on the body. These rashes may appear as:
The rash may be accompanied by flu-like symptoms, such as:
Untreated secondary symptoms will disappear within a few weeks, but there may be repeated episodes during the next few years.
The infection is still present but there are no symptoms. It may or may not progress to the third stage. Blood tests for syphilis will be positive during this stage.
This stage may begin years after the initial infection. This stage has become rare in developed countries. In this stage, the infection begins to damage:
Damage can be serious enough to cause death. Symptoms include the following:
Babies born with this infection can have problems, such as deafness, cataracts, brain and nerve damage, and seizures. It can also cause premature births or stillbirths.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your bodily fluids will be tested. This can be done with:
Syphilis testing is part of routine prenatal care. This is done to treat and prevent congenital syphilis.
All people who have syphilis should also be tested for HIV.
Syphilis can be treated with antibiotics. The type of antibiotic and length of treatment will depend on how long you have been infected. Half of those being treated for syphilis will have fever with headache, muscle aches, and other symptoms during the first 24 hours of treatment.
If you have syphilis of any stage, avoid sexual contact until treatment is complete and the infection is gone. All sex partners should be notified. They will need to be treated as well.
To reduce your chance of getting syphilis:
It may not be obvious that a sex partner has syphilis. Do not assume your partner is healthy just because you do not see lesions.
American Social Health Association
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Sex Information and Education Council of Canada
Latent syphilis. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:
http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115040/Latent-syphilis. Updated January 26, 2016. Accessed June 7, 2016.
Primary syphilis. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:
http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115619/Primary-syphilis. Updated January 26, 2016. Accessed June 7, 2016.
Secondary syphilis. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:
http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T113985/Secondary-syphilis. Updated January 26, 2016. Accessed June 7, 2016.
Syphilis. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases website. Available at:
http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/syphilis/Pages/default.aspx. Updated October 27, 2014. Accessed June 7, 2016.
Syphilis-CDC fact sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:
http://www.cdc.gov/std/syphilis/STDFact-Syphilis.htm. Updated May 20, 2016. Accessed June 7, 2016.
Tertiary syphilis. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:
http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T113669/Tertiary-syphilis. Updated January 13, 2016 Accessed June 7, 2016.
Workowski KA, Berman S, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines, 2010.
7/13/2016 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), Bibbins-Domingo K, et al. Screening for syphilis infection in nonpregnant adults and adolescents: US Preventive Services Task Force recommendation statement. JAMA. 2016 Jun 7;315(21):2321-2327.
Last reviewed June 2016 by Marcie Sidman, MD
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