Syphilis

Know the Risk

Having sex is a big responsibility. Any time you have sex you are at risk for getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD). The more you know about STDs, the better you can protect yourself.

Click on the links below to learn detailed facts about STDs and how to keep yourself healthy.

Syphilis (sif-i-lis) is a sexually transmitted disease that is caused by bacteria.
In the first stage of syphilis a person might experience chancres (shank-ers) or painless sores in the genital area.
Syphilis is transmitted when the sore (chancre) of an infected person comes into contact with another person's vagina, penis, anus or mouth.
Syphilis can be treated and cured with medicine called antibiotics.

What is it?

Syphilis (sif-i-lis) is a sexually transmitted disease caused by a type of bacteria. It is spread from person to person, male or female, by physical contact during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

How will I feel?

Symptoms of syphilis are very specific based on the stage of infection. Primary syphilis: The first sign of a syphilis infection is a skin sore called a chancre (shank-er) which usually shows up 2-12 weeks after being exposed. It's possible to have more than one chancre. You might not see a chancre at all because it might be inside your anus or vagina. They typically appear on or around the area that was first infected including the scrotum, penis, vaginal lips, and anus or in your mouth. The sores are not painful and disappear after several weeks without treatment. Just because the chancre doesn't hurt or goes away does not mean the syphilis infection has been cured! If you don't get treated, syphilis could lead to some very serious health problems!

Secondary syphilis: Secondary signs and symptoms occur 4-12 weeks after infection in the form of a body rash. This rash is identified by its unique location: the palms of your hands and soles of your feet. It isn't itchy and, just like the chancre, can disappear without treatment. Secondary syphilis may also present with warts and white mucous patches (like puss filled little sacs), which are very infectious and can occur in any moist area of the body such as mouth, the side of the tongue or the anus. Other symptoms of secondary infection include swollen glands, fever, fatigue, patchy hair loss, weight loss, and headaches. These symptoms sound a lot like other health problems such as the flu; so many people ignore these signs of infection. If you experience anything like this, you should get it checked right away! Latent syphilis: This later stage of infection doesn't have any signs or symptoms. At this point, syphilis can only be found by getting a special blood test. A latent infection can continue for life and some people may never experience any serious health problems.

Tertiary (late) syphilis: About one-third (one in three) of untreated people with syphilis experience serious damage to various organs and body systems. Tertiary syphilis can occur any time from a year to 50 years after being infected; most cases occur within 20 years. Commonly the brain, heart, liver and bones are involved, causing paralysis, mental problems such as dementia, blindness, deafness, heart failure, and death.

What if I'm positive?

Syphilis can be treated and cured at any stage of infection with penicillin shots. The stage of infection determines how many shots of penicillin are required. If you're allergic to penicillin, an alternative antibiotic, doxycycline, is also effective. Even though your symptoms may go away, it is important to have several repeat syphilis blood tests to be sure the treatment has worked. We recommend getting a test one week after you've been treated and then every few months for the next year. And, as always, if you've had unprotected sex, get an STD check-up to make sure you haven't been re-infected or infected with another STD or with HIV. To maintain your sexual health and the sexual health of the Philadelphia community, it is very important to have your sex partner(s) examined and treated for syphilis. Otherwise they can give the infection back to you and/or infect others. A positive syphilis test can also increase your chances of contracting or spreading HIV to sex partners.

Not having sex is the only way to be sure you will not get infected with syphilis. If you are having sex, use condoms correctly every time to make sure you stay STD free. Just remember, the more sex partners you have, the greater the chance you will get syphilis! Get STD check-ups every three to six months (that means at least twice a year, up to four times a year). This makes sure infections like syphilis are caught early and treated fast.