What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a highly contagious disease caused by a bacteria called Treponema pallidum that is mainly transmitted through sexual contact. People can get it without knowing they have it. It is curable, but it can cause serious health problems if you don’t get it treated.
Syphilis is very common. You can minimize your risk by practicing safe sex and knowing how the illness is passed between people. It is essential to understand the symptoms of this sexually transmitted infection (STI) so that you can see a doctor for treatment and avoid passing it to other people.
Learn more about syphilis, what it looks like, and how to treat and prevent it.
Signs and symptoms of syphilis
Syphilis has four different stages, and each stage has different symptoms.
The phases of syphilis are:
- Primary Stage. The first sign of syphilis is a sore, called a chancre, on your genitals, anus, or mouth. It appears at the spot where the syphilis bacteria entered your body. The sores are painless and may go unnoticed. They usually heal on their own within three to six weeks, but you should seek treatment to prevent the infection from moving to the next stage.
- Secondary Stage. In the secondary phase of syphilis, you will develop a rash. The rash won’t necessarily be in the same place as your original sore, though it can be. It commonly shows up on your hands and feet, where it can easily be mistaken for something other than an STI. The rash is usually reddish or brownish and doesn’t cause itching. You may also develop a fever, body aches, headaches, or fatigue during this phase. Though the symptoms will clear up on their own, you should still seek treatment.
- Latent Stage. Even after the sores and other symptoms go away, the bacteria hasn’t left your body. It just goes into a latent stage where you have no symptoms at all. It can live in your body for years without treatment.
- Tertiary Stage. If you don’t treat syphilis in one of the early stages, it becomes a serious health problem. In its tertiary stage, the bacteria can affect any organ in the body, including your brain. It can cause organ failure and death.
Causes of syphilis
Syphilis is caused by a bacteria called Treponema pallidum. It passes from person to person by contact with the sores from primary stage syphilis. Typically, this happens during unprotected sexual contact.
Pregnant women can pass sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis to their unborn babies, which can cause a miscarriage, low birth weight, or other serious health problems for the baby. Syphilis treatment is safe during pregnancy.
You can prevent syphilis by avoiding sexual contact with affected partners. Using condoms during sex can reduce your risk of syphilis. However, if a syphilis sore is in a place that the condom doesn’t cover, you can still transmit the bacteria.
When to see the doctor for syphilis
Because syphilis will not go away without treatment, you need to see a doctor if you suspect you have it. If you think you have been exposed to syphilis or you have symptoms, call your doctor to get tested. Make sure to see a doctor if your partner is undergoing treatment for syphilis.
If your doctor is worried that you have tertiary syphilis, they may do more extensive tests. If they think that syphilis has affected your brain or nervous system, they may test your cerebral spinal fluid via a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap. This test requires a needle in your spine to draw out the fluid for testing.
All pregnant women should have a syphilis test at least once during their pregnancy.
Treatments for syphilis
Syphilis responds well to antibiotics, so treatment is easy and effective most of the time. If you have had syphilis for less than a year, you will only need one dose. Your doctor will give you a shot of penicillin, which is usually enough to clear it up.
If you were exposed more than a year ago or are unsure how long ago it happened, you will need three shots over three weeks.
Pregnant women can be safely treated with penicillin as well. If you are pregnant and allergic to penicillin, discuss it with your doctor. They can choose a treatment plan that will be safe for you.
You can get syphilis more than once. You should call your doctor if you suspect you were exposed or have symptoms, even if you were successfully treated before.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Syphilis & MSM (Men Who Have Sex With Men) - CDC Fact Sheet."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Syphilis: The Facts."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Syphilis Treatment and Care."
Harvard Health: "Syphilis."
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: "Syphilis."