How do you get syphilis?

Syphilis is usually passed from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore during oral, vaginal or anal sex. Because syphilis sores can be hidden in the vagina, rectum or mouth, it may not be obvious that a sex partner has syphilis. A pregnant woman can also transmit syphilis to her unborn baby. This is called congenital syphilis. If you want to know about congenital syphilis, Click here to learn more.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms are easy to miss, and easy to mistake for something else. Even if you don’t notice symptoms, you can still have syphilis. Each stage of syphilis looks different.

Primary Syphilis

The first symptom of syphilis is a raised open sore called a chancre. It usually shows up on the genitals, mouth, or rectum one to three weeks after exposure. But it can sometimes take months. The sore is painless, but DON’T IGNORE IT! It can last for several weeks and go away by itself. When the sore goes away, it doesn’t mean that syphilis is gone. Eye problems such as blurry vision, spots that float through your vision, a blue tinge in vision, flashing lights, and eye pain can also start at this stage. Without treatment, it will progress to the next stage. Click here to view photos of chancres.

Secondary Syphilis

This stage usually starts with a reddish-brown, spotted rash on one or more areas of the body. Most often the rash appears on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. It can also show up elsewhere on the body. The rash usually does not itch. Sometimes it’s very subtle. The rash can appear as the chancre is healing or many weeks after the chancre has gone away. It may come and go for up to two years. Other symptoms may include swollen lymph nodes, fever, fatigue, patchy hair loss, weight loss, and headache. These symptoms usually last from 2 to 6 weeks and will clear up on their own. Eye and vision problems can also happen at this stage. If not treated, syphilis will still be present. Click here to view photos of syphilis rashes.

Latent Syphilis

The latent stage of syphilis begins when secondary symptoms go away. During this stage there are no signs or symptoms. The infection can be detected only by a blood test. A relapse to secondary syphilis can occur during the first few years of latency. If not treated, latent syphilis continues for life and may progress to the final stage.

Tertiary (Late) Syphilis

About one-third of people who don’t get treated suffer serious damage to the brain, nervous system, heart, or other organs. Tertiary syphilis can cause paralysis, dementia, blindness, deafness, heart failure, and even death. Treatment at this stage will cure the disease and stop future damage. But it cannot repair or reverse damage that has already occurred.

What about HIV?

Over half of local syphilis cases are in men who have HIV. If you have HIV, syphilis can cause more harm.

  • If you already have HIV, it can be easier to get syphilis. If you get syphilis, your HIV may make it easier to transmit both HIV and syphilis to others.
  • Having HIV may make syphilis progress more quickly.
  • If you have HIV, it may take longer to treat and cure syphilis.
  • If you don’t have HIV, having syphilis or another STD can make it easier to get HIV.

Getting treated for syphilis can help you stay healthy and reduce the likelihood that you’ll pass syphilis to sex partners.

If you have HIV and are sexually active, it’s especially important to get tested regularly for syphilis and other STDs.

If you don’t have HIV, get tested regularly for HIV and other STDs.

Click here for more information on the connection between HIV, syphilis and other STDs.

Is there a cure for syphilis?

Yes. Proper treatment will cure syphilis. Click here to learn more.

Take the Syphilis in Seattle Quiz