What it is

Syphilis is an STI caused by bacteria; it can damage your body's major organs over time and needs to be treated right away.

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The symptoms

Most people who have syphilis don't even know it. Because symptoms don't show, people pass on the infection without realizing it. Symptoms may appear 3 to 90 days after sexual contact with an infected person. Once the bacteria enter the body, the disease goes through a few stages.

Primary stage:
A painless open sore or ulcer appears at the site where the bacteria first entered the body - usually the genital area, throat, mouth, lips, or anus, and swollen glands may be present in the groin.The sore is usually (but not always) firm, round, and painless. Symptoms can occur within a few days or a couple of months after infection. Because the ulcer or sore is usually painless and hidden, you may not be aware you are infected. While the sore or ulcer may go away on its own without treatment, the infection will remain and progress to secondary syphilis.

Secondary stage:
This stage usually starts with a rash on one or more areas of the body. Rashes can appear from the time when the original sore is healing to several weeks after the sore has healed. The rash usually does not cause itching. This rash may appear as rough, red, or reddish brown spots both on the palms of the hands and/or the bottoms of the feet. It may look different on other parts of the body and can look faint or like rashes caused by other diseases.

Other symptoms of secondary syphilis may include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, muscle aches, fatigue, and flat grayish-white sores in mouth and on genitals.

The symptoms of secondary syphilis will go away with or without treatment. Without the right treatment, the infection will progress to the latent and possibly late stages of disease.

Late and latent stages
The latent stage of syphilis is the period when there are no visible signs or symptoms of syphilis. If you do not receive treatment, you can continue to have syphilis in your body for years without any signs or symptoms. This stage can last for years. Tertiary syphilis is very serious and would occur 10-30 years after your infection began. At this stage syphilis can do the most damage to the body, affecting the brain and nervous system (neurosyphilis), blood vessels, heart, bones, and eye (ocular syphilis).

Symptoms of neurosyphilis include severe headache, difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis (not able to move certain parts of your body), numbness, and dementia (mental disorder). Symptoms of ocular syphilis include changes in your vision and even blindness.

If left untreated, syphilis can eventually lead to death.

What it can do to you

Initial symptoms will simply go away without treatment. But you'll still have syphilis, and the disease may spread through your body. Years later, it may cause severe damage to all major organs.

Syphilis increases the risk of contracting or spreading HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). It can also be difficult to successfully treat HIV patients who have syphilis.

How you prevent it

Practice safer sex and use condoms. This will definitely lower the risk of getting syphilis or other STIs.

Note: If you have syphilis, abstain from any sex (anal, oral or vaginal), even with a condom, until your health care provider is sure your infection is treated effectively.

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If you find out that you have syphilis, your partner(s) need to be told that they could have an infection - even if there aren't any symptoms. If you have concerns about telling your partner(s), contact a public health nurse. The public health nurse can suggest ways to handle the situation or they will contact your partner(s) for you. Of course, your name will be kept confidential.

Syphilis is transmitted from person to person by direct contact with syphilis sores. Sores occur on the external genitals, vagina, anus, or in the rectum. Sores also can occur on the lips and in the mouth.

Syphilis can be transmitted during vaginal, anal, or oral sexual contact. Pregnant women with the disease can pass it to their unborn children.

If you think you have it

If you think you have syphilis, visit your health care provider or sexual health clinic to get tested immediately.

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Get tested

A health care provider or a nurse at a sexual health clinic can use a special blood test to find out if you have syphilis. It can also can be diagnosed by taking a sample from a syphilis sore. It can take 2 to 12 weeks for the infection to show up in your blood.

Many women assume STI tests are also performed during their regular Pap exam. This is not the case. Be sure to ask your health care provider to test you for STIs - asking is the only way to know whether you are receiving the right tests.

Get treated

Antibiotics can treat a syphilis infection in the early stages.

Follow up

Follow-up tests for syphilis are very important because they will show whether treatment has worked, or if you need further treatment. Your health care provider or sexual health clinic will tell you when to return for follow-up tests.

Remember:

  • If you have an untreated STI like syphilis, it's easier to get other STIs such as HIV from a person who has it or to transmit HIV to another person.
  • It's easier to get HIV from oral sex if you already have syphilis.
  • Pregnant women should have a blood test for syphilis.
  • It's possible to have more than one infection at a time, so get tested for other STIs.

If you decide to talk to your partner(s) yourself, learn how to talk comfortably about it.