What is Syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection caused by
the bacterium Treponema Pallidum. It has often been called "the
great imitator" because so many of the signs and symptoms are
indistinguishable from those of other diseases. Syphilis is passed
from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore.
Transmission of the bacterium can occur during vaginal, anal, or
What are Symptoms?
There are 3 stages of syphilis, all of which are characterized by
certain symptoms. Many people infected with syphilis do not have
any symptoms for years, yet remain at risk for late complications
if they are not treated
The primary stage of syphilis is usually marked by the appearance
of a single sore (called a chancre), but there may be multiple
sores. The time between infection with syphilis and the start of
the first symptom can range from 10 to 90 days (average 21 days).
The chancre is usually firm, round, small, and painless. The
chancre lasts 3 to 6 weeks, and it heals without treatment.
However, if adequate treatment is not administered, the infection
progresses to the secondary stage.
A skin rash and second chancre sore characterize the secondary
stage. This stage typically starts with the development of a rash
on one or more areas of the body. The rash usually does not cause
itching and is characteristic of rough, red, or reddish brown spots
both on the palms of the hands and the bottoms of the feet.
However, rashes with a different appearance may occur on other
parts of the body. Sometimes rashes associated with secondary
syphilis are so faint that they are not noticed. Other symptoms of
secondary syphilis may include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore
throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and
fatigue. The signs and symptoms of secondary syphilis will resolve
with or without treatment, but without treatment, the infection
will progress to the latent and possibly late stages of
Late and Latent Stages
The latent (hidden) stage of syphilis begins when primary and
secondary symptoms disappear. Without treatment, the infected
person will continue to have syphilis even though there are no
signs or symptoms. This latent stage can last for years.
The late stage of syphilis can appear 10 - 20 years after
infection was first acquired. In the late stages of syphilis, the
disease may subsequently damage the internal organs, including the
brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and
joints. Signs and symptoms of the late stage of syphilis include
difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness,
gradual blindness, and dementia. This damage may be serious enough
to cause death.
Other Complications of Untreated
Because untreated syphilis in a pregnant woman can infect and
possibly kill her developing baby, every pregnant woman should have
a blood test for syphilis.
Also, genital sores (chancres) caused by syphilis make it easier
to transmit and acquire HIV infection because those sores cause
breaks in the skin, which disrupts the barrier that helps protect
against transmission of HIV.
How is syphilis transmitted?
Syphilis transmission most often occurs through direct contact
with a syphilis sore or a rash associated with syphilis. The sores
occur mainly on the external genitals, vagina, anus, or in the
rectum. Sores can also occur on the lips and in the mouth. The most
common ways syphilis is transmitted is during vaginal, anal, or
Transmission of syphilis usually occurs from persons with sores
who are in the primary or secondary stage. Many of these sores are
unrecognized. Thus, most syphilis transmission occurs from persons
who are unaware of their infection.
Transmission of the disease can also occur in the early latent
phase of syphilis, although, it is less common.
The Rapid Plasma Reagin (RPR) is a simple blood test used to
determine whether someone has syphilis. This test detects
antibodies produced by the body shortly after the infection occurs.
The earliest the RPR should be taken is 10 days. The antibodies are
most commonly detectable by 3 weeks. If the RPR is positive, an FTA
confirmation test is ordered to verify the result.
There is a cure for syphilis. Treatment is in the form of
penicillin given by injection. If it is suspected that the bacteria
has been in the body 1 year or less, usually only one shot of
penicillin will be administered. If it is suspected that the
bacteria has been in the body longer than 1 year, several shots of
penicillin may be needed to clear the bacteria. There are other
antibiotics that can be used to treat syphilis when a person is
allergic to penicillin.
Is it true that having syphilis can increase the risk of
Yes, there is a link between syphilis and HIV. This is because
syphilis causes sores that can serve as a way for HIV to enter the
body. Any break in the skin increases the risk of contracting
Is there a cure for syphilis?
Yes. Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics. An injection or
series of injections of Penicillin is the preferred treatment for
syphilis at all stages. The dose and length of treatment depends on
the stage and symptoms of the disease. Although syphilis can be
cured at all stages, any damage done in the late stage is typically
Is it true that syphilis can cause blindness and
It is true that in the late stages of syphilis, serious health
complications can arise, including blindness and/or paralysis.
Other serious complications include damage to the brain, nerves,
eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. Syphilis can
even cause death.
Can a mother give syphilis to her baby during
The syphilis bacterium can infect the baby of a woman during her
pregnancy. Depending on how long a pregnant woman has been
infected, she may have a high risk of having a stillbirth (a baby
born dead) or of giving birth to a baby who dies shortly after
birth. An infected baby may be born without signs or symptoms of
disease. However, if not treated immediately, the baby may develop
serious problems within a few weeks. Untreated babies may become
developmentally delayed, have seizures, or die.