Syphilis: Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection that can cause serious health problems if not treated in the early stages of the disease. Syphilis is spread from one sexual partner to another by direct contact with a syphilis sore, known as a chancre, during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. A syphilis sore can be present on or around the penis, vagina, anus, rectum, lips, or mouth. The average time from exposure to the start of symptoms is 21 days, but can range from 10 to 90 days. An infected mother can also spread syphilis to her unborn baby. Pregnant women, men who have sex with men (MSM) and individuals with HIV who are sexually active should be screened routinely for the infection. 

Syphilis is divided into different stages with signs and symptoms unique to each stage:

  • Primary syphilis presents with a sore or sores at the original site of infection. Sores usually occur on or around the genitals, anus, rectum or the mouth. Sores are typically firm, round, and painless. The sore can last 3 to 6 weeks and heals with or without treatment. Without treatment the infection will progress to the next stage.
  • Secondary syphilis symptoms include skin rash, swollen lymph nodes, and fever. At times the symptoms are mild or can even go unnoticed. Lesions can also occur in the mouth, vagina or anus. The symptoms can begin when the primary sore is healing or several weeks after the sore has healed. The rash can be rough, red or brown and be on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. Some people also experience weight loss, muscles aches and fatigue. The symptoms of this stage will resolve with or without treatment. Without treatment the infection will progress to the next stage and possibly tertiary syphilis.
  • Latent stage is the phase of the infection when there are no signs or symptoms present. The infection can remain dormant in the body for years. Without treatment the infection can progress to tertiary syphilis.
  • Tertiary syphilis is associated with severe medical problems that can affect the heart, brain or other organs in the body. Most people with untreated syphilis do not develop tertiary syphilis, however when they do the infection can affect many different organ systems. This stage occurs 10 to 30 years after the infection began. In this stage the disease damages your internal organs and can result in death.

Testing for syphilis is done through a blood test at Health Center. With the right antibiotics syphilis can be cured. However, treatment might not undo any damage that the infection has already caused in tertiary syphilis. Having syphilis once does not protect an individual from getting it again. Follow up testing is recommended to make sure that treatment was successful.