What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a type of bacteria. If it's not treated by a doctor, it can get worse over time and cause serious health problems.
The infection can be active at times and not active at other times. When the infection is active, you have symptoms. When it's not active, you don't have symptoms. But you still have syphilis.
You can get syphilis without having sexual intercourse. Just being in close contact with an infected person's genitals, mouth, or rectum is enough to expose you to the infection.
What causes it?
Syphilis is caused by a type of bacteria. The bacteria are usually spread through sexual contact. They most often enter the body through the tissues that line the throat, nose, rectum, penis, or vagina.
What are the symptoms?
One of the first signs of syphilis is an open sore that appears wherever the bacteria entered the body. As syphilis spreads, a person may get a skin rash and have other symptoms like a fever, swollen lymph nodes, and weight loss. Without treatment, syphilis may cause blindness and nerve and heart problems.
How is it diagnosed?
Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask about your symptoms and sexual history. You'll probably have one or more blood tests, especially if you don't have sores. If you do have sores, your doctor may test the fluid from one of the sores to check for syphilis bacteria.
How is syphilis treated?
At any stage of infection, antibiotics work well to cure syphilis. They can't undo the damage already caused by late-stage syphilis. But they can help you avoid further problems from the infection. You and any sex partners that you may have exposed to the infection will need to be treated.
How can you prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs)?
It's easier to prevent an STI than it is to treat one:
- Limit your sex partners. The safest sex is with one partner who has sex only with you.
- Talk with your partner or partners about STIs before you have sex. Find out if they are at risk for an STI. Remember that it's possible to have an STI and not know it.
- Wait to have sex with new partners until you've each been tested.
- Don't have sex if you have symptoms of an infection or if you are being treated for an STI.
- Use a condom (a male or female condom) every time you have sex. Condoms are the only form of birth control that also helps prevent STIs.
- If you're pregnant, be extra careful. Some STIs can be passed to your baby during delivery.
Vaccines are available for some STIs, such as HPV. Ask your doctor for more information.
How It Spreads
An infected person who has a sore or a rash can pass syphilis to others. It's usually spread during vaginal, anal, and oral sex. But it can be spread by any close contact with the genitals, mouth, or rectum of an infected person. If you're infected while you're pregnant, you can pass syphilis to your baby.
Syphilis develops in four stages. Each stage has a different set of symptoms.
One of the first signs of syphilis is a painless open sore called a chancre. Chancres are often found in the mouth, the anus, or the genital area. As syphilis spreads throughout the body, a person may get a skin rash and have other symptoms like a fever, swollen lymph nodes, and weight loss.
You may not notice symptoms of syphilis. Sometimes they're the same as symptoms for other infections. This can cause someone with the infection to put off seeing a doctor. And it can make it harder for a doctor to tell if you have syphilis.
If syphilis isn't found and treated in the early stages, it can cause other serious health problems. These can include blindness, problems with the nervous system and the heart, and mental disorders. It can also cause death.
The main symptom of the first stage of syphilis is an open sore. A rash and other symptoms occur during the second stage. That's followed by a time without symptoms. Syphilis can move to the late (tertiary) stage, causing serious problems. Antibiotics can't undo damage, but they can cure syphilis at any stage.
When to Call a Doctor
Call to make an appointment if you:
- Have sores, bumps, rashes, blisters, or warts on or around the genital or anal area or on any area of the body where you think they could be caused by a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
- Think you have been exposed to a STI.
Do not have sexual intercourse or other sexual contact until you have been treated by a doctor. If you are diagnosed with syphilis, your sex partner(s) will need to be treated also.
In most areas, public health clinics or health departments are able to diagnose and provide low-cost assessment and treatment of early syphilis and other STIs.
Watchful waiting is a wait-and-see approach. It's not a good choice if you think you were exposed to or have syphilis or another STI. Any symptoms or other changes that suggest syphilis or another STI should be checked by a doctor.
Check your symptoms
Exams and Tests
Your doctor will do a physical exam. You'll be asked about your symptoms and your sexual history.
The diagnosis of syphilis is usually confirmed with one of several blood tests. This is especially true if you don't have sores. If you have sores, a doctor may look at the fluid from one of the sores with a microscope to look for syphilis bacteria. (This is called a dark-field examination.)
To diagnose the primary and secondary stages of syphilis, the doctor may do a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) in some cases.
More testing should be done to look for other sexually transmitted infections, such as:
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). People who have syphilis have a greater chance of being exposed to HIV.
Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics. Penicillin is the preferred medicine. You will need to be treated, and so will any sex partners that you may have exposed to the infection.
At any stage of the infection, antibiotics work well to cure syphilis. They can't undo the damage already caused by late-stage syphilis. But they can help you avoid further problems from the infection.
You cannot treat syphilis on your own. It must be treated with medicine that only a doctor can give you. Treatment helps you avoid other serious health problems. And it keeps you from spreading syphilis to others.
Being treated during pregnancy can help you avoid miscarriage or stillbirth. It can also help keep your baby from being born with syphilis.
- Get all the recommended shots. Your doctor probably gave you an antibiotic shot. If you've had syphilis for a while, you may need 2 more shots.
- If your doctor prescribed antibiotic pills, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
- Don't have sexual contact with anyone while you're being treated. After treatment, wait at least 10 days and until all sores are healed before you have any sexual contact. Even if you use a condom, you and your partner or partners can still spread the infection.
- Wash your hands if you touch an infected area. This helps prevent spreading the infection to other parts of your body or to other people.
- Tell your sex partner or partners that you have syphilis. They'll need treatment even if they don't have symptoms.
Current as of: November 22, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kevin C. Kiley MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology