Syphilis (pronounced: siff ill iss) is an STD caused by the spirochete bacterium Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum. Syphilis is spread through direct contact with syphilis sores, usually through oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse, and much less commonly, through kissing.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 55,400 people in the U.S. get new syphilis infections every year. In 2011, 72% of primary and secondary syphilis occurred among men who have sex with men (aka MSM). Pregnant women can also pass the infection to their baby. There were 360 reports of children with congenital syphilis (born with syphilis) in 2011. Untreated babies may not show signs of syphilis but may suffer from cataracts, deafness, seizures, and death.

There are 3 stages of syphilis – primary, secondary, and late. A single firm, round, and painless sore is the main symptom in the primary stage of syphilis. The sore appears at the location where syphilis entered the body and lasts about 3 to 6 weeks, but because it is painless, it can easily go unnoticed. Note about variation: although one sore is the most common symptom in the beginning, there can be multiple sores.

If the infected person does not receive treatment during the primary stage the infection progresses to the secondary stage, which usually occurs 4 to 10 weeks after exposure. Symptoms include red, red, or reddish-brown skin rashes or sores (aka mucous membrane lesions) in the mouth, vagina, penis, urethra, anus, palms of the hands, or the bottoms of the feet. Rashes that accompany secondary syphilis can appear from the time when the primary sore is healing to several weeks after the sore has healed, and may vary in appearance. The rashes and sores do not typically itch and can also go unnoticed. Click here to see photos of both primary and secondary syphilis on the STD Project’s site. Other symptoms may include:

  • Large, raised, gray, or white lesions in warm, moist areas like the mouth, underarm, genital, or groin area.
  • Fever, sore throat, headaches, and fatigue.
  • Swollen lymph glands.
  • Patchy hair loss.
  • Weight loss and muscle aches.

The late (latent or hidden) stage of syphilis begins when primary and secondary symptoms disappear. About 15% of people that have not been treated for syphilis develop late stage syphilis, which can appear 10 to 30 years after infection began. Symptoms of the late stage of syphilis include difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness, dementia, and damage to the internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. This stage can last for years, and without treatment can result in long-term complications or even death.

The early stages of syphilis are easy to treat with an antibiotic, but any damage caused by syphilis in the later stages cannot be undone. So go get tested if you have any suspicion you may have been exposed or are at risk! To find a location to get tested for syphilis visit our resources page, or Google test centers in your area.

***This is a blog and the information on this website is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, nor is it meant to take the place of your personal physician’s advice.***

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