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Division of HIV and STD Programs
600 S. Commonwealth Ave., 10th Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90005
Phone:(213) 351-8000
Fax: (213) 738-0825
Office Hrs: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. M-F
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Syphilis Information

Syphilis Overview

  • Syphilis is caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum
  • Syphilis is still at historically low levels in the U.S., but rates have been increasing during the last few years
  • In LA County, case numbers have greatly increased among some groups such as men who have sex with men (MSM)
  • Increasing syphilis cases in women have resulted in more pregnant women passing syphilis to their fetus or baby
  • Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics
  • If left untreated, syphilis can cause permanent damage to the heart, brain, and other organs
  • Having syphilis can increase your chances of getting HIV

Fact Sheets in Multiple Languages

Syphilis in Women Posters

How do you get it?

Syphilis is passed during sex (vaginal, anal, or oral sex) or skin-to-skin contact with infected areas. Pregnant women with syphilis can pass it to their fetus or baby during pregnancy or delivery.


Syphilis is a disease that has different stages. Each stage is characterized by different symptoms. These symptoms come and go, but unless syphilis is treated and cured, it will remain in the body and can cause serious damage over time. The stages include:

  • Primary syphilis: A painless sore (or sores) called a chancre appears on, around, or inside the penis, vagina, mouth, or anus. The chancre appears 10 days to three months after exposure. The sore is full of bacteria and is very infectious. Many people never notice the chancre because it may be inside the vagina or somewhere else hard to see or feel. Chancres generally last two to six weeks and then disappear on their own.

  • Secondary syphilis: A few weeks after the chancres disappear, or sometimes at the same time, a rash may appear on the body, hands, and/or feet. The rash is infectious and can look like other rashes and even wart-like growths. Other symptoms may include mild fever, sore throat, wart-like growths on the genitals, or clumpy hair loss. These symptoms may go away quickly or come and go for about a year.

  • Latent syphilis: A year after infection, all symptoms usually disappear on their own and the person is no longer infectious to sex partners. However, the disease is still in the body, and if not treated can cause serious complications years later.


Syphilis can damage the eyes, ears or brain, even in its early stages. If left untreated, syphilis remains in the body and can cause further damage. The final stage of syphilis, known as tertiary or late syphilis, occurs decades (10 years or more) after infection. Complications can include damage to the skin, bones and internal organs; swelling of the brain, blindness, seizures, dementia, and insanity; and damage to blood vessels and the heart. These complications can lead to death.


To get tested for syphilis, go to a doctor or a local clinic. A blood sample is required to test for syphilis. You should get tested regularly for syphilis if you are a man who has sex with men, have HIV infection, and/or have partner(s) who have tested positive for syphilis. Pregnant women should be tested for syphilis during pregnancy and at delivery and receive immediate treatment if infected.


Syphilis can be easily treated and cured with certain antibiotics (given as a shot). Make sure both you and your sex partner(s) complete treatment before having sex again. You should not attempt to diagnose yourself or take medicine on your own.


Latex, polyurethane, and female condoms offer some protection against syphilis, but may not cover all infectious areas. You can usually avoid getting syphilis if you and your partner only have sex with each other. Sexually active persons should be tested for syphilis regularly depending on your HIV status and sexual behavior. If syphilis is detected and treated early, pregnant women can prevent damage to the baby.

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