What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by bacteria. Many people with this infection have no symptoms. Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics (pills). If left untreated, this infection can cause serious long-term health problems and death. Having syphilis, even without symptoms, may make your body more open to getting infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Remember: bacteria spread wherever and whenever they can. Sex can spread bacteria, but sex does not cause syphilis. Bacteria cause syphilis.

How is it spread?

Syphilis is spread by oral, anal or vaginal sex, when bacteria from an infected person gets into your body through breaks in the skin or mucosa (thin, moist lining) inside the mouth, vagina or rectum.

Syphilis transmission

Syphilis can also spread from the mother to the baby during pregnancy or birth.

Can it be prevented?

Yes, it can. Prevention means reducing your risk of getting an STI. You can avoid syphilis infection by using condoms for oral, anal or vaginal sex. Using condoms and having safer sex will reduce your risk of getting syphilis.

Condoms can prevent bacteria and viruses from spreading:
Using Male Condoms & Using Internal/Female Condoms

What are the symptoms?

Many people infected with syphilis show no signs or symptoms at all.

If you do show symptoms, this is what may happen to you:

Primary syphilis [1st stage] – Several weeks to 3 months after infection, painless sores (chancres) may appear where the bacteria first entered your body, on the penis, scrotum or vulva, around the anal area or inside the vagina, rectum or mouth. If sores only appear inside your body, you might not even know they are there. The sores go away by themselves, but you are still infected.

Secondary syphilis [2nd stage] – About 6 weeks after the sores appear, you may have fever, headache, pain and a rash anywhere on your body. Your hair may fall out in clumps. You are highly contagious [very likely to spread syphilis to others] during this phase. Symptoms go away, but you are still infected.

Latent syphilis [silent stage] – After about a year, all symptoms go away and you are no longer contagious [no longer spread syphilis to others]. You are still infected.

Tertiary syphilis [3rd stage] – About one-third of infected people will develop serious or fatal complications within 10 to 30 years, including ulcers of skin and bones, heart disease, paralysis or brain disorders. People infected with HIV may progress from primary to tertiary syphilis more rapidly than other people.

Can it be cured?

Yes. Syphilis is usually cured with antibiotics (given with a needle) after a positive test result.

Remember: you can get syphilis more than once.

How can I tell if I am infected?

Syphilis is diagnosed by testing a swab taken from a sore or by a blood test. A swab is like a thin Q-tip for collecting body fluids.

You might think about getting tested for syphilis if:

  • You or your sex partner have had oral, anal or vaginal sex without a condom.
  • You have symptoms of syphilis.
  • A sex partner tells you they are infected or have symptoms.
  • You are told that a sex partner is infected.
  • You have been diagnosed with another STI.
  • You are pregnant. Babies with syphilis may test negative and not have any symptoms, but are still infected.

What will happen when I go to get tested?

When you go to a doctor or nurse to get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), give as many details as you can so you can get the best care possible. This is what will probably happen:

  • Your genitals may be examined for sores, growths, swelling or discharge.
  • You will be asked for a urine [pee] sample.
  • Swabs may be taken from the vagina, urethra [pee hole], mouth, throat, anus or rectum.
  • A blood sample may be taken to test for Hepatitis B and syphilis.
  • You may be offered HIV testing (usually done separately).

What about HIV?

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is also a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is spread when infected blood, semen [cum] or vaginal fluid gets into your blood. If you already have an STI such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes or genital warts, you may have broken skin, swelling or sores that make it much easier for HIV to get into your body.