Syphilis Overview

Reviewed: May 8, 2014

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by bacteria. It infects the genital area, lips, mouth, or anus of both men and women. You usually get syphilis from sexual contact with someone who has it. It can, however, be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy.

Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics if caught early. Although rare, syphilis can cause serious health problems and death as untreated syphilis infection can spread to involve other parts of the body, such as the heart and brain.

Syphilis Symptoms

The early stage of syphilis, known as the primary stage, causes a small, painless sore, usually on the genitals. This sore usually appears about 3 weeks after infection, but may occur up to 90 days after infection. Sores can also be found on anus, in the rectum, or on the lips and in the mouth. Sometimes there may be more than one sore in the primary stage and there may also be swelling in nearby lymph nodes. 

Most people with secondary syphilis have a skin rash. The rash, which doesn't itch, is usually on the palms of your hands and soles of your feet. However, it may cover your whole body or appear only in a few areas. The rash appears 2 to 10 weeks after the sore, generally when the sore is healing or already healed.

Other symptoms include headache, sore throat, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes. Less commonly seen symptoms include fever, aches, weight loss, hair loss, aching joints, or lesions (sores) in the mouth or genital area.

In early latent (hidden) syphilis, signs and symptoms of syphilis may disappear, but the infection remains in your body. When you are in this stage, infecting sexual partners is still possible.

Even without treatment, only a small number of infected people develop the dreaded complications known as tertiary, or late, syphilis. In this stage, the bacteria will damage your heart, eyes, brain, nervous system, bones, joints, or almost any other part of your body. This damage can happen years or even decades after the primary stage.

Late syphilis can result in mental illness, blindness, deafness, memory loss or other neurologic problems, heart disease, and death. Late neurosyphilis (brain or spinal cord damage) is one of the most severe signs of this stage.


Syphilis Causes

Syphilis is caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum.

The most common way to get syphilis is by having sexual contact with an infected person. If you are infected, you can pass the bacteria from infected skin or mucous membranes (linings), usually your genital area, lips, mouth, or anus, to the mucous membranes or skin of your sexual partner.

The bacteria are fragile, so you cannot get syphilis from sharing food or utensils, or from using tubs, pools, or toilets.

Syphilis can be passed from mother to infant during pregnancy, causing a disease called congenital syphilis.

Syphilis Diagnosis

Syphilis is not easily diagnosed based on symptoms. Signs and symptoms of syphilis may be confused with other diseases.

A health care provider can perform blood tests to see if you have syphilis, even if you don't have symptoms. If sores are present, fluid that comes from sores can be tested.

If your healthcare provider thinks you might have neurosyphilis, your spinal fluid will be tested as well.


Syphilis Treatments

Syphilis is easy to treat in its early stages. Penicillin, an antibiotic, injected into the muscle, is the best treatment for syphilis. Your partner(s) may also need to be treated, too. If you are allergic to penicillin, your healthcare provider may give you another antibiotic to take by mouth.

If you have neurosyphilis, you may need to get daily doses of penicillin intravenously (in the vein) and you may need to be treated in the hospital.

If you have late syphilis, damage done to your body organs cannot be reversed.

While you are being treated, you should abstain from sex until any sores are completely healed. You should also notify your sex partners so they can be tested for syphilis and treated if necessary.