- Caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum
- Syphilis is currently at historically low levels in the U.S., however rates have greatly increased among some groups such as men who have sex with men
- 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
How do you get it?
Syphilis is passed during vaginal, anal, oral sex, or skin-to-skin contact with infected areas. Pregnant women with syphilis can pass it to their unborn child during pregnancy.
Syphilis is a disease of 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 early stages are:
- 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, 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, or clumpy hair loss. These symptoms may come and go for about a year.
- Latent syphilis: A year after infection, 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 can cause serious complications years later.
If left untreated, syphilis can affect the heart, brain and other organs. Damage becomes apparent in the final stage of syphilis, known as tertiary or late syphilis. This stage often occurs decades (10 years or more) after infection. Complications can include damage to the skin, bones and internal organs; neural problems including swelling of the brain, blindness, seizures, and insanity; and damage to blood vessels and the heart. These complications can lead to death. A baby born to a mother with syphilis can be born dead or with birth defects.
To get tested for syphilis, go to a doctor or a local clinic. A blood sample is required to test for syphilis.
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. Pregnant women should seek prenatal care early and should be tested for syphilis during the first trimester. If syphilis is detected and treated early, pregnant women can prevent damage to the baby.
For information on free and low cost STD testing and treatment services in Los Angeles County, call the STD Hotline at 1-800-758-0880 or visit our STD Testing & Services section.