What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection Overview of Sexually Transmitted Infections STIs are infections that are passed from person to person through sexual contact, including oral sex. STIs may be caused by different types of germs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, and... read more (STI). An STI is an infection that is spread from person to person by sexual contact.
Syphilis spreads easily through anal, oral, or vaginal sex with an infected person
A pregnant woman can spread syphilis to her baby
Syphilis has 3 stages that get progressively worse
Doctors treat syphilis with penicillin
What are the 3 stages of syphilis?
Stage 1: Syphilis starts in the part of your body that was exposed to your sex partner's body fluids. For example, if you had vaginal sex, syphilis may start on your penis (if you're a man) or in or near your vagina (if you're a woman).
Stage 2: Syphilis spreads into your blood and infects your skin.
Stage 3: Syphilis spreads throughout your body. Any body part can be infected by syphilis but particularly your heart, blood vessels, brain, and spinal cord.
There is often a time gap between stage 2 and stage 3. This gap is called the latent period. During the latent period, people feel well and usually can't pass syphilis to other people. Sometimes syphilis stops after stage 2. However, about 1 out of 3 people with an untreated syphilis infection go on to stage 3.
What are the symptoms of syphilis?
Symptoms are different in each stage of syphilis.
Symptoms of stage 1 (primary) syphilis
A small, red, raised area at the infection site, such as your penis, vagina, rectum (where poop is stored), or lips
The small red area turns into a painless, open sore that's hard and doesn’t bleed
You may not notice the sore because it doesn't cause many symptoms
3 to 12 weeks later, the sore heals and you’ll feel healthy
If not treated, syphilis will move to stage 2 because the infection spreads in your blood.
Symptoms of stage 2 (secondary) syphilis
A painless rash on your body that doesn't itch—unlike most other rashes, the rash from syphilis often appears on the palms of your hands or soles of your feet
Raised, flat, smooth warts may also form on the moist areas around your mouth, armpits, sex parts, and anus (where poop comes out)
Feeling weak and tired all over
Feeling less hungry than usual
Swollen lymph nodes
The warts are full of syphilis germs. The germs can spread to people who touch the warts.
Stage 2 symptoms eventually go away. But they can cause problems with other parts of your body and organs, such as your liver, kidneys, and eyes. If not treated, you may not have any more symptoms. However, about 1 out of 3 people with syphilis will move to stage 3.
Symptoms of stage 3 (tertiary or late) syphilis
Symptoms may affect your skin, blood vessels, heart, brain, or spinal cord.
Skin problems can include:
Soft, rubbery bumps on your skin, such as your scalp and face (the bumps can also be inside your body, such as on your liver or bones)
The bumps turn into open sores and kill the tissue around them
The bumps slowly heal and leave scars
Blood vessel problems usually involve the big artery (aorta) that comes out of the heart and carries blood to the body. The aorta may weaken and widen. Sometimes the weakened aorta splits open (ruptures), which can be fatal. An aorta problem causes:
Heart problems usually result in leaky heart valves Aortic Regurgitation The aorta is the main artery that carries blood away from your heart to the rest of your body. Four heart valves control how blood flows in and out of your heart. The valves are like one-way... read more and symptoms are:
Brain problems usually don't appear for 15 to 20 years. Symptoms include:
Changes in your mood or behavior
Trouble thinking clearly
Spinal cord infection makes it hard to control your muscles. You might have:
Loss of feeling in your feet
Pain and in your back, legs, or arms
Weakness of your arms or legs
How can doctors tell if I have syphilis?
To diagnose syphilis, doctors do blood tests. If they think syphilis has affected your brain or spinal cord, doctors may do a spinal tap Spinal Tap Spinal fluid is a liquid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord. Spinal fluid helps cushion your brain if you hit your head or fall. Spinal fluid moves freely around your brain and spinal... read more .
How do doctors treat syphilis?
Give you a shot of penicillin into one of your muscles, usually your rear end
Give you extra doses of penicillin based on your stage and symptoms
Tell you to avoid having sex until you have finished treatment
Test and treat your sex partners for syphilis
Do blood tests and exams to make sure treatment worked
People who are allergic to penicillin may be given other antibiotics.
Sometimes when the penicillin kills the syphilis germs, your body reacts to all the dead and dying germs. This reaction usually happens within the first 12 hours. You may have fever, headache, muscle aches, and a rash. This reaction is uncomfortable but not dangerous. It goes away within 24 hours. This reaction isn't due to an allergy to penicillin.