What Is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Early treatment can cure syphilis (SIFF-ill-iss) and prevent long-term problems.

What Are STDs?

STDs (also called sexually transmitted infections or STIs) are infections that spread through sex (vaginal, oral, or anal). Some STDs can spread through close contact with the genitals or body fluids. (Genitals are the sexual or reproductive organs that are on the outside of the body.)

How Do People Get Syphilis?

Syphilis usually spreads by touching a sore (called a chancre [SHANK-er]) or wart-like lesions (called condyloma lata) caused by syphilis. This can happen through sex (vaginal, oral, or anal) or close sexual contact.

The chancre or condyloma lata (kon-duh-LOW-muh LAH-tuh) may be hard to see, so someone might not know they have them.

An infected pregnant woman can spread the infection to her unborn baby during pregnancy or delivery.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Syphilis?

Syphilis has different stages. In the order that they happen, they are:

  1. primary syphilis
  2. secondary syphilis
  3. latent syphilis
  4. late syphilis (also called tertiary syphilis)

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Primary Syphilis?

The main symptom of primary syphilis is a one or more chancres (sores). They develop about 3 weeks after someone is infected. The chancres happens where the sexual contact happened (genitals, mouth, or rectal area). They are usually painless.

The chancre goes away in about 3–6 weeks, even without treatment. But without treatment, syphilis will move on to the next stage, secondary syphilis.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Secondary Syphilis?

A few weeks to months after the chancre appears, these symptoms can begin:

  • rash, often on the palms of the hands and soles of feet
  • flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, tiredness, loss of appetite, muscle aches, joint pain, and sore throat
  • swollen glands (lymph nodes)
  • wart-like lesions (condyloma lata) in warm, moist areas, such as the mouth and area around the genitalia and anus
  • hair loss

Over time, secondary syphilis can liver, kidney, and digestive tract problems.

The symptoms of secondary syphilis will go away. But without treatment, syphilis will move on to the next stage, latent syphilis.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Latent Syphilis?

Someone with latent syphilis is infected but does not have any symptoms ("latent" means it's not obvious or causing symptoms). Syphilis can stay latent for life. Or, it may move to late syphilis.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Late Syphilis?

If latent syphilis progresses to late syphilis (also called tertiary syphilis), it causes serious damage to the heart and blood vessels, brain and nervous system, and other organs.

Late syphilis can develop any time from 1–30 years after someone is infected. Even someone who has not had any symptoms of primary or secondary syphilis can progress to late syphilis.

What Is Neurosyphilis?

Neurosyphilis is syphilis that has spread to the brain and nervous system. It can happen during any of the stages of syphilis. People with neurosyphilis can have:

  • syphilitic meningitis
  • seizures
  • dementia
  • damage to spinal cord
  • eye problems that can lead to blindness

What Causes Syphilis?

A type of bacteria called Treponema pallidum causes syphilis.

How Is Syphilis Diagnosed?

To find out if someone has syphilis, health care providers usually do a blood test. Fluid from the chancre also can be tested. Someone who has symptoms of neurosyphilis will get a spinal tap (lumbar puncture). This test collects some fluid from around the brain and spinal cord for testing in a lab.

How Is Syphilis Treated?

Health care providers treat syphilis with antibiotics . These medicines are given as a shot or through an IV (a tiny tube that goes into a vein). How long treatment is needed depends on what stage of syphilis someone is in.

Syphilis can be cured. But the medical problems it can lead to — such as dementia, artery damage, or blindness — usually can't be cured.

After treatment, follow-up testing will make sure that the infection is cured.

All sexual partners should be tested and treated, if necessary:

  • For primary syphilis: partners from the last 3 months
  • For secondary syphilis: partners from the last 6 months
  • For latent syphilis: partners from the last year (because there could have been a chancre or condyloma lata that wasn't noticed)

Can Someone Get Syphilis More Than Once?

Yes, people can get syphilis again if they have sex with someone who is infected.

Can Syphilis Be Prevented?

The only way to prevent syphilis and other STDs is not to have sex (oral, vaginal, or anal). If someone decides to have sex, using a latex condom every time can prevent most STDs.

Anyone who is sexually active should get tested for STDs every year, or more often if recommended by their health care provider.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.