Syphilis is a bacterial infection usually spread by sexual contact. The disease starts as a painless sore typically on your genitals, rectum, or mouth. Syphilis spreads from person to person via skin or mucous membrane contact with these sores.
After the initial infection, the syphilis bacteria can remain inactive (dormant) in your body for decades before becoming active again. Early syphilis can be cured, sometimes with a single shot (injection) of penicillin. Without treatment, syphilis can severely damage your heart, brain, or other organs, and can be life-threatening. Syphilis can also be passed from mothers to unborn children.
What causes it?
Syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. You get it through direct contact with syphilis sore on someone else’s body. This usually happens during sexual activity, but the bacteria can also get into your body through cuts on your skin or through your mucous membranes.
Syphilis can’t be spread by toilet seats, doorknobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, bathtubs, shared clothing, or eating utensils.
Syphilis develops in stages, and symptoms vary with each stage. But the stages may overlap, and symptoms don’t always occur in the same order. You may be infected with syphilis and not notice any symptoms for years.
The first sign of syphilis is a small sore, called a chancre. The sore appears at the spot where the bacteria entered your body. While most people infected with syphilis develop only one chancre, some people develop several of them.
The chancre usually develops about three weeks after exposure. Many people who have syphilis don’t notice the chancre because it’s usually painless, and it may be hidden within the vagina or rectum. The chancre will heal on its own within three to six weeks.
Within a few weeks of the original chancre healing, you may experience a rash that begins on your trunk but eventually covers your entire body even the palms of your hands, and the soles of your feet. This rash is usually not itchy and may be accompanied by wartlike sores in your mouth or genital area. Some people also experience hair loss, muscle aches, a fever, a sore throat, and swollen lymph nodes. These signs and symptoms may disappear within a few weeks or repeatedly come and go for as long as a year.
If you aren’t treated for syphilis, the disease moves from the secondary stage to the hidden (latent) stage, when you have no symptoms. The latent stage can last for years. Signs and symptoms may never return, or the disease may progress to the third (tertiary) stage.
About 15% to 30% of people infected with syphilis who don’t get treatment will develop complications known as late (tertiary) syphilis. In the late stage, the disease may damage your brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. These problems may occur many years after the original, untreated infection.
At any stage, syphilis can spread and, among other damage, cause damage to the brain and nervous system (neurosyphilis) and the eye (ocular syphilis).
Syphilis Risk Factors
You’re at higher risk of getting syphilis if you:
- have had unprotected sex
- have multiple sex partners
- have HIV
- are a man who has sex with men
- have Syphilis Symptoms
- are pregnant
- are a sex worker
- are in prison
- have had condomless sex with multiple people
- have a partner who has had condomless sex with multiple people
If the test comes back positive, it’s important to complete the full treatment. Make sure to finish the full course of antibiotics, even if symptoms disappear. Also, avoid all sexual activity until your doctor tells you that it’s safe. Consider getting tested for HIV as well.
People who have tested positive for syphilis should notify all of their recent sexual partners so that they can also get tested and receive treatment.
How to prevent syphilis
The best way to prevent syphilis is to practice safe sex. Use condoms during any type of sexual contact. In addition, it may be helpful to:
- Use a dental dam(a square piece of latex) or condoms during oral sex.
- Avoid sharing sex toys.
- Get screened for STIs and talk to your partners about their results.
- Syphilis can also be transmitted through shared needles. Avoid sharing needles if using injected drugs.