Syphilis: Fast Facts About STDs


Fast Facts About STDs: Syphilis

Name of Disease or Infection
Syphilis, also known as Lues, Syph.

Type of Disease or Infection
Bacterial infection caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum.

How Common Is It?
The Center for Disease Control reported over 32,000 cases of syphilis in 2002. Most reported cases of primary and secondary syphilis were in those between the ages of 20 and 39.

How Do I Get It?
Syphilis is transmitted through direct contact with syphilis sores. It can be passed during anal, oral or vaginal sex. Pregnant women may pass the infection to their unborn babies.

Primary Syphilis
Symptoms of primary syphilis include a small, round, firm painless sore at the site of infection. This sore is known as a chancre. Occasionally, more than one sore may be present. Because chancres are painless, individuals often do not notice them if they are internal (i.e., inside the vagina). Sores appear from 10 to 90 days after infection, although the average is 21 days. The chancre can last between three and six weeks. The sore will heal without treatment, but the infection will remain, and will progress to secondary syphilis.

Secondary Syphilis
Symptoms of secondary syphilis include a skin rash that rarely itches, and mucous membrane lesions. Sometimes, the rash will start while the chancre is healing, or weeks later. It may appear anywhere on the body, and commonly occurs on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. It may also cover the back. Other common symptoms include patchy hair loss, the presence of warts similar to genital warts, fever, fatigue and swollen lymph glands.

Tertiary Syphilis
After the symptoms of secondary syphilis pass, the person may have no symptoms for years, but will still be infected. Symptoms of tertiary syphilis include gummas (large ulcers) that devastate the muscles, liver, lungs, eyes and/or endocrine system; heart disease; and neurosyphilis, which affects the brain and spinal cord. Warts, similar to genital warts, may also appear. When passed to the newborn, if miscarriage does not occur, the infant is often born with brain damage, blindness, deafness and/or deformities of the bones and teeth. The first appearance of symptoms will occur one to twelve weeks after exposure. If left untreated, symptoms of secondary syphilis will appear about six weeks after the chancre has disappeared. If continued to be untreated, the secondary symptoms will disappear within two to six weeks, beginning the latency stage. Tertiary symptoms appear years, sometimes decades, after the initial infection.

What Should I Do If I Think I Have It?
See your clinician or physician immediately for a blood test for antibodies.

How Do I Get Rid of It?
Your physician will give you a one-time injection of penicillin, or a penicillin derivative. More penicillin may be needed if you are in a later stage of infection. Your partner or partners should be treated as well, to avoid re-infection.

What Happens If I Don't Treat It?
Untreated syphilis can eventually lead to brain damage, psychosis, heart disease, organ damage, paralysis, blindness and death. In pregnant women, it can lead to miscarriage as well as severe birth defects (known as congenital syphilis).

Who Should I Tell?
If you have syphilis, you should tell any current or recent partners. Once the disease has been successfully treated, you do not need to tell future partners.