Syphilis

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by bacteria. Even though it is curable, if syphilis isn't treated, it can cause serious damage to your brain, heart, nervous system, and even lead to death.

How do I get syphilis?

Syphilis transmission can occur when infected lesions come in contact with the soft skin of the mucous membrane found inside the vagina, urethra or with an abrasion during vaginal, oral and anal sex, even if there is no sexual penetration. It is most easily spread during the first (primary) stage because symptoms usually go unnoticed. Syphilis can also be contracted from exposure to lesions or syphilitic "warts" during the secondary stage.

What does syphilis do to my body?

Syphilis affects the body in stages.

Stage 1: Primary stage
  • Sores appear in the genital (penis or vagina) area or the mouth within 10 days to 3 months after infection.
  • The sores are usually firm, round, small, and painless.
  • The sores should go away on their own, but bacteria stays in the body (without treatment).

Stage 2: Secondary stage
  • If the syphilis infection is not treated, the person may develop a rash.
  • The rash looks like rough, red or reddish brown spots that typically don't itch, on the palms of hands and bottoms of feet.
  • A person may have rashes on other parts of the body, or may have other symptoms like fever, swollen glands, or hair loss.
Stage 3: Latent stage
  • If a person doesn't get treated, the infection will stay in his/her body, even though there are no symptoms. The infection is called "latent".
  • This "latent" stage can last up to 30 years.
Stage 4: Late stage
  • If not treated, the bacteria attack other parts of the body.
  • It can attack the brain, heart, eyes, bones, liver, blood vessels, nerves and joints.
  • Blindness and brain damage can happen.

Is there a cure for syphilis?

Yes. A medicine called penicillin can cure syphilis. Your healthcare provider can prescribe this.

How do I find out if I have syphilis?

You can get tested for syphilis at your doctor's office or clinic. Syphilis can be found by blood tests or by testing fluid taken from lesions or swollen lymph nodes, which occur during primary or secondary syphilis. If you don't have a healthcare provider, you can search for a place to get tested here.

How can I reduce my risk of getting syphilis?

The best way to avoid syphilis is not to have vaginal, anal or oral sex. If you do choose to have sex, using condoms lowers your chances of getting syphilis.

If you or your partner has syphilis sores, it is easy to get syphilis. So, if you or your partner has syphilis sores, don't have sex until you have completed treatment.

If you have syphilis, it's important that you talk to your partner as soon as possible so she or he can get treatment. Also, it is possible to pass syphilis back and forth, so if you get treated and your partner doesn't, you may get infected again.

Learn more ways to reduce your risk of contracting syphilis or other STIs.

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