What Is It?
-ill-iss) is a
sexually transmitted disease (STD)
caused by a type of bacteria known as a spirochete (through a
microscope, it looks like a corkscrew or spiral). It is extremely
small and can live almost anywhere in the body.
The spirochetes that cause syphilis can be passed from one
person to another through direct contact with a syphilis sore
during sexual intercourse (vaginal, anal, or oral sex). The
infection can also be passed from a mother to her baby during
pregnancy. You cannot catch syphilis from a towel, doorknob, or
In the 1990s there was a decrease in the number of people
infected with syphilis. However, more recently there has been a
steady increase in reported cases of syphilis, especially in young
adults and in men who have male sexual partners.
In its early stages, syphilis is easily treatable. However, if
left untreated, it can cause serious problems - even death. So
it's important to understand as much as you can about this
What Are the Symptoms?
Syphilis occurs in several different stages:
In the first stage of syphilis, red, firm, and sometimes wet
sores that don't hurt appear on the vagina, rectum, penis, or
mouth. There is often just one sore, but there may be several. This
type of sore is called a
-ker). Chancres appear on the part of the body where the
spirochetes moved from one person to another. Someone with syphilis
may also have swollen glands during this first stage.
After a few weeks, the chancre will disappear, but that's
not a sign that the disease has gone away. In fact, if the
infection hasn't been treated, the disease will continue to get
Syphilis is highly contagious during this first stage.
Unfortunately, it can be easy to miss because the chancres are
painless and can appear in areas that may not be easy to see, like
in the mouth, under the foreskin, or on the anus. This means that
people may not know that they are infected, and can pass the
disease on to others without realizing it.
If syphilis hasn't been treated yet, the person will usually
break out in a rash (especially on the soles of the feet and palms
of the hands) and may also notice flu-like symptoms, such as fever
and achiness. Sometimes the rashes associated with syphilis can be
very faint or look like rashes from other infections and,
therefore, may not be noticed. Sores sometimes appear on the lips,
mouth, throat, vagina, and anus - but many people with secondary
syphilis don't have sores at all.
This secondary stage usually lasts 1 to 2 weeks and will go away
with or without treatment. But if the infection hasn't been
treated, the disease will continue to progress. Syphilis is still
contagious during the secondary stage.
If syphilis still hasn't been treated yet, the person will
have a period of the illness called latent (hidden) syphilis. This
means that all the signs of the disease go away, but the disease is
still very much there. Even though the disease is
"hiding," the spirochetes are still in the body. Syphilis
can remain latent for many years.
If the disease still hasn't been treated at this point, it
becomes known as tertiary (or late-stage) syphilis. This means the
spirochetes have spread all over the body and can affect the brain,
the heart, the spinal cord, and bones. Symptoms of late syphilis
can include difficulty walking, numbness, gradual blindness, and
possibly even death.
How Long Until Symptoms Appear?
A person who has been exposed to the spirochetes that cause
syphilis may notice a chancre from 10 days to 3 months later,
though the average is 3 weeks. If the syphilis is not treated, the
second stage of the disease may occur anywhere from about 2 to 10
weeks after the original sore (chancre). It's important to keep
in mind that many people never notice any symptoms of syphilis.
This means it is important to let your doctor know that you are
having sex, so that he or she can test you for syphilis even if you
don't have any symptoms.
What Can Happen?
Syphilis can be very dangerous to a person's health if left
untreated. In both guys and girls, the spirochetes can spread
throughout the whole body, infecting major organs. Brain damage and
other serious health problems can occur, many of which can't be
treated. A woman who is pregnant and hasn't been effectively
treated is at great risk of putting her baby in danger. Untreated
syphilis can also cause major birth defects. Syphilis also
increases the risk of HIV infection because HIV can enter the body
more easily when there's a sore present.
How Is It Treated?
If you think you may have syphilis or if you have had sexual
contact with someone who may have syphilis, see your doctor or
gynecologist right away. It can sometimes be difficult to spot
chancres. So it's important to get checked on a regular
basis, especially if you have had unprotected sex and/or more than
one sex partner.
Depending on the stage, the doctor can make a diagnosis by
examining the discharge from chancres under a special microscope or
by doing a blood test to look for signs of infection. Let the
doctor know the best way to reach you confidentially with any test
Early stages of syphilis are easily cured with antibiotics.
Someone who has been infected for a while will need treatment for a
longer period of time. Unfortunately, damage to the body from the
late stage of syphilis cannot be treated. However, even in the late
stage, it is important to get treatment. This can prevent further
damage to the body. Anyone with whom you've had unprotected sex
should also be checked for syphilis immediately.
How Is Syphilis Prevented?
The best way to prevent any STD is to not have sex. However, for
people who decide to have sex, it's important to use protection
and to have as few sexual partners as possible. Latex
are effective against most STDs; however, if there are any sores or
rashes that cannot be covered by the condom, it's wise to not
have sex until rashes or other skin breaks have healed.
Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: March 2007
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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