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Syphilis


What is it?

  • The bacteria that causes syphilis is caused by a very small organism called a spirochete.
  • Syphilis affects both men and women.
  • Syphilis usually starts by causing painless sores, called chancres, or rashes on your skin. Over time syphilis can become a more serious and dangerous infection.

How common is it?

  • As of 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that more than 46,000 people in the United States are infected with syphilis.
  • There are more than 13,000 new cases of syphilis reported each year in the United States.
  • Reporting 134 new cases of syphilis in 2010, Washington, DC, has higher rates of this disease than any state in the United States.
  • Young people between the ages of 15-24 reported higher rates of syphilis than any other age group in 2011.

Who is most likely to get it?

  • You are more likely to get syphilis if:
    • You are having sex with more than one person
    • The person/people you are having sex with are having sex with other people
    • You don’t use condoms
    • Are a man who has sex with other men
  • The biggest increase in reported cases of syphilis between 2004 and 2008 was in young people 15-24 years old

How do you get it?

  • Syphilis is spread through skin-to-skin contact
  • You can get syphilis from the following:
    • Any type of sex;vaginal, anal, or oral
    • Kissing, touching, or other direct contact with a syphilis sore or rash
  • Syphilis can be passed from a mother to a baby before birth

How do I know if I have it?

  • You can be infected with syphilis and not have any symptoms. Remember, you can still give syphilis to other people, even if you have no symptoms.
  • Early symptoms are very similar to other types of diseases or may be so mild that you don’t even notice them.
  • There arefour stages of syphilis symptoms:
    • Stage One – Primary:
      • You may notice a sore, called a chancre, which does not hurt or feel uncomfortable but is firm and round
      • The sore will show up anywhere from 9-90 days after you are infected. The average time for the sore to show up is 21 days.
      • The sore will show up where the bacteria entered your body, which is usually on the penis, anus/butt, vulva (the area around your vagina), mouth, lips, or hand.
      • The sore can heal on its own within three to six weeks, but you still need to be treated and can still infect other people.
  • Stage Two – Secondary:
    • If you don’t get treated, flu-like symptoms can develop between three weeks and six months after infection.
    • You can also get a rash on the palms of your hands, soles of your feet, or your groin area, which are usually brown sores about the size of a penny. The rash might also show up over your whole body.
    • Other symptoms during this stage can include:
• Fever
• Headache
• Sore throat
• Swollen glands
• Patchy hair loss
• Aching muscles
• Pain in your joints
• Sores in your mouth
• Feeling tired
• Lumps, warts, or sore in moist areas of your body
    • Syphilis bacteria live in the rashes that show up on your body and you can spread the infection to other people through any physical contact with the rashes, even if it’s not sexual
    • The rashes usually go away within two to six weeks, even without treatment. However, you still need to be treated to prevent spreading the infection to other people and to prevent more serious health problems.
  • Stage Three – Latent:
    • StageThree happens when you don’t treat syphilis and the symptoms you had seem to have gone away. The infection is now latent, or “hidden,” and you can stay in this stage for many years.
  • Stage Four – Tertiary:
    • Some people get tertiary, or late syphilis. This is when the bacteria can cause serious health problems, including damage to your heart, eyes, brain, nervous system, joints, or other parts of your body.
    • This stage can begin anywhere from 10-30 years after you become infected
    • Tertiary syphilis can cause:
      • Mental illness
      • Blindness
      • Heart disease
      • Brain damage
      • Paralysis

Can it be treated? How do I get rid of it?

  • YES.You can treat and cure syphilis with antibiotics prescribed by a doctor.
  • Syphilis is usually treated with a shot of penicillin, but other antibiotics can be used if you’re allergic to this medication.
  • You might get a small fever, headache, or the sore(s) on your body might swell after you get the antibiotic. This usually is not serious, but see a doctor if you are in pain or it does not get better.
  • You will need to continue to follow up with your doctor for about a year to make sure your treatment worked.
  • To make sure syphilis is cured and you don’t pass it on to your partner, don’t have sex until you have taken the antibiotics and your doctor says it’s ok.
  • Your partner might be infected and not know it, since sores can be hidden in the vagina, rectum, or mouth, or might be so small that you can’t see them. Also, some people don’t get any symptoms. Encourage your partner(s) to get tested and treated at the same time as you, so you don’t re-infect each other.
  • Get treated as early as possible to prevent serious health problems.
  • The first step to getting rid of syphilis is to see a doctor and get tested.

What can happen if I don’t get treatment?

  • Syphilis that is not treated can be very dangerous to your health. After many years, the bacteria can damage your eyes, heart, brain, and/or bones and this damage cannot be undone.
  • You can infect other people with syphilis, even if your symptoms are mild or you don’t notice any symptoms.
  • You are two to five times more likely to get HIV if you have syphilis and are exposed to HIV because the sores caused by syphilis make it easier for HIV to infect your body.

How can I keep from getting it?

  • The only 100 percent effective way to prevent syphilis is to not have sex
  • If you have sex, use a condom every time you have any type of sex and get tested regularly.
    • Condoms may reduce the risk of giving or getting syphilis, but since you can also get it just by touching the syphilis sores, and the sores can be in areas not covered by a condom, this method is not 100 percent effective.
  • Ask your partner(s) to get tested before you start having sex. You can get syphilis again, even if you have been treated for it in the past.
  • Only have sex with a partner who has tested negative for syphilis and is not having sex with anyone else.

How can I keep from spreading it?

  • If you think you might have syphilis, don’t have sex until you get tested and treated.
  • Get tested regularly. You can still spread syphilis even if you don’t have symptoms or they go away.
  • Use a condom EVERY TIME you have vaginal, anal or oral sex
  • If you test positive for syphilis:
    • Don’t have sex until you’ve finished your medicine and your doctor says it’s ok.
    • Tell all of your current and past partners that you have it, since they could have it too. Remember, untreated syphilis can be dangerous to your health, so anyone who might be infected should get tested and treated.
      It can be difficult to start a conversation with your current or past partner(s) about STIs, but with such serious health consequences, wouldn’t you want someone to tell you? If you are having a hard time talking to your partner(s) about this, your doctor can help you find another way to inform them that they may have been exposed.
    • After you have finished treatment, go to all of your follow-up appointments to make sure the infection is gone and you are healthy. The doctor who treats your infection will tell you how long you need to continue to follow-up.

How do I get tested for it?

  • A doctor will give you a physical exam to look for sores or other symptoms. If you have any sores, the doctor will take some fluid from the sore to look at under a microscope.
  • The doctor might also test some of your blood, especially if you don’t have any sores or other symptoms.
  • You can get tested at places like family planning centers, private doctors’ offices, STI clinics, hospital clinics, or health departments. Before you make an appointment, make sure you can get tested for syphilis at that location.
  • Find a place to get tested from our list of testing locations.

How often should I get tested?

  • If you think you have syphilis, or think you have been exposed to syphilis, talk to a doctor about getting tested.
  • If you are pregnant, you should get tested at your first prenatal visit and again when you give birth. If your doctor thinks you are at higher risk for getting syphilis, they might recommend that you get tested during your third trimester as well.


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