Syphilis Symptoms

Syphilis usually presents as a sore on the genitals and can progress and worsen if not treated. Even if symptoms subside, the infection is still alive in your body until properly addressed by way of antibiotics.

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What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD), caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. If not treated, syphilis can advance from mild symptoms (primary stage) to more serious stages (secondary, latent, and tertiary). While carrying the most severe symptoms, tertiary is the only stage of syphilis that is not contagious. In recent years, the rate of infection has been increasing, especially among men who have sex with men.

Untreated syphilis can cause severe health problems in men and women, even years after they were infected. Routine screening is recommended for people at high risk of syphilis exposure, including men who have sex with men and people with HIV.

How do I know if I have syphilis?

In many instances, you’ll notice a small sore (or chancre) develop on or near the genital region or around the mouth. This sore appears at the site at which the bacteria entered your body and occurs around three weeks after exposure on average. The chancre is painless and, depending on its exact location, you may not even notice it. Furthermore, since many who contract syphilis show no symptoms whatsoever, it is virtually impossible to self diagnose and seek treatment right away. The only way to know for sure if you’ve contracted syphilis is to take a reliable syphilis test from a trusted provider of STD testing services.

How is syphilis contracted?

Syphilis is spread most commonly by way of skin to skin contact with an active sore during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Chancres can appear throughout the genital region and in and around the mouth. It is also possible for a mother to pass the infection along to a baby at birth, so pregnant women with syphilis will want to consult with their doctor about options for a safe childbirth.

Can you get syphilis from kissing?

It is possible, although rare, to contract syphilis through kissing as the bacteria is spread by way of skin to skin contact and not through the transfer of blood or sexual fluids. If you are currently being treated for syphilis and are experiencing chancres on your mouth, you’ll want to be careful about kissing anyone until the infection has subsided.

Can anyone contract syphilis?

Yes, there is no known natural immunity to syphilis which means that anyone is susceptible to contracting the disease. And even if you contract syphilis once and become syphilis-free a short time later, you are not immune. It is not at all uncommon to contract syphilis more than once in a lifetime.

How is syphilis prevented?

Syphilis is commonly spread through sexual activity, including vaginal, oral, and anal sex. Although not impossible, syphilis transmission is rarely caused from kissing another person on the mouth. Because many people who contract syphilis display only very minor symptoms (or no symptoms at all), it is important to practice safe sex with partners. This can involve the use of condoms and dental dams, limiting the number of sexual partners, and being in a mutually monogamous relationship. Of course the only way to be 100% safe from syphilis or any STD is to abstain from sex altogether.

If you were treated for syphilis, make sure your partners are too. If they are infected and have not been properly treated, it is possible for them to re-infect you. It’s also important to abstain from sexual activity until your treatment is complete and your syphilitic sores and/or other syphilis symptoms have subsided completely.

Likewise, if you are aware that your partner has syphilis, avoid sexual contact with them until they are finished with their treatment and their symptoms are completely gone. And just to be safe, you’ll want to get tested and (if necessary) treated as well. And even if you were exposed to syphilis more than 90 days ago and showing no symptoms, you should still be tested just to be sure. Remember, even when it displays no symptoms whatsoever, the infection will not go away without the proper treatment.

Do condoms prevent syphilis?

Using condoms or dental dams correctly can help minimize the transmission of syphilis. However, since syphilis is spread through skin to skin contact and not by the transfer of bodily fluids like other STDs, any kind of sexual activity still puts you at risk of contracting syphilis. Condoms, after all, only cover the penis itself whereas chancres can appear throughout the genital area.

What do syphilis symptoms look like?

Syphilis symptoms depend on the disease stage, and many of the symptoms are easy to mistake for other diseases. Syphilis symptoms can come and go, and some people will sho no symptoms for weeks, months, years, or potentially not at all. Because symptoms are so sporadic and difficult to monitor, many who have contracted the disease will go untested and untreated and potentially pass the infection along to sexual partners. This is one of the many reasons syphilis is so common: People may be living with the bacteria and not even know it.

Primary Stage Syphilis Symptoms
The first symptom of syphilis is usually the development of a sore (called a chancre). Chancres are round and painless and usually develop several weeks after a person is infected. Infected people may have one or more chancres. Chancres are contagious and contact with them can spread syphilis.

Chancres can develop in a variety of areas on the body, but usually appear on the genitals, including the vagina, vulva, penis, scrotum, and anus. They can also appear around the mouth. Because they are not painful and can develop in hidden places, they may be difficult to notice.

Chancres tend to last 3 – 6 weeks, going away on their own, even without treatment. However, even after the chancre has subsided, the infection will remain and worsen until treatment is sought. If left untreated, syphilis symptoms will worsen into the secondary stage of infection.

Secondary Stage Syphilis Symptoms
The secondary stage of syphilis can develop as the initial chancre is healing or up to weeks afterwards. The main symptom for the secondary stage of syphilis is a rash. This rash can be located on any part of the body, including the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. These rashes may be difficult to see and will not itch, so even this stage of syphilis can be difficult to identify as such. In some instances, this type of rash may be accompanied by wart-like spots on the genitals or around the mouth.

In the secondary stage of syphilis, people may also develop flu-like symptoms, including fever, fatigue, sore throat, muscle aches, headaches, swollen glands, weight loss, and hair loss. Like the chancre, these symptoms will resolve over time (potentially weeks or months) even if they are not treated. But again, even if these symptoms subside, the infection is still alive in the body until treated properly. People with secondary syphilis are highly contagious and should take every precaution available to prevent spreading it to others.

Latent Stage Syphilis Symptoms
Although primary and secondary stage syphilis symptoms will resolve on their own, the infection remains latent, or hidden in the body. If syphilis isn’t treated during one of the first two stages, it advances to what’s known as the “latent stage.” This stage shows no visible symptoms and is not contagious, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Early latent syphilis refers to a case in which the infection occurred within the past 12 months whereas late latent syphilis refers to a case in which the infection occurred more than a year ago.

This latent stage of syphilis may persist for months and even years without causing any symptoms. However, a syphilis test taken at any point during this asymptomatic stage will reveal the infection, so you’ll still be able to treat it accordingly.

Tertiary or Late Stage Syphilis Symptoms
Most people who contract syphilis and do not seek treatment for it will not develop tertiary syphilis. However, some people with latent syphilis will progress to the tertiary (late) stage, often many years—even decades—later. Tertiary syphilis can damage the nervous system, heart, joints, liver, blood vessels, eyes, and may even cause death.

What can I expect when I get tested for syphilis?

Getting tested for syphilis is easy. All that is required is a blood sample, which will be used to look for the antibodies (made by the immune system) associated with a syphilis infection. Finding syphilis antibodies can indicate that the body has been fighting such an infection.

With Priority STD Testing, simply select the syphilis test (or a panel option that includes a syphilis test) from our online catalog, find the closest testing facility, and stop by at your convenience. Tests take only a few minutes and most people are in and out in under a half hour. In most cases, you’ll have your results in as little as 24-72 hours.

If your test shows that you are infected with syphilis, you should also be tested for HIV. Having syphilis sores makes it easier for HIV to enter the body.

What can I expect from syphilis treatment?

A single injection of the antibiotic penicillin is the standard treatment for primary and secondary syphilis. After receiving the antibiotic, some people develop a flu-like reaction, with fever, chills, aches, and headache. This typically goes away within a day. People with latent syphilis who have been infected for less than a year also receive a single injection of penicillin; people with latent syphilis for more than a year require more doses of penicillin. Tertiary syphilis treatment also includes antibiotics but the specific treatment depends on what complications a person has. You should be re-tested for syphilis 6 – 12 months after treatment, to make sure the infection is gone.

You should avoid sexual contact if you suspect or are known to have syphilis. Do not resume sexual activity until your treatment is complete and any chancres or rashes have resolved.

It is also important to notify your sexual partners if you suspect you have syphilis or if you have been diagnosed with it. Any sexual partners you had in the past 90 days should be tested and treated. Partners with whom you had sexual activity more than 90 days ago also need to be tested. In some states, partners can be treated without being tested or seen by a provider.

Is syphilis curable?

Yes! With the right combination of prescription antibiotics, syphilis can be cured fairly easily.

How long does it take to cure syphilis?

As long as you follow your prescription to the letter and take it for the full duration prescribed to you by your physician, syphilis generally clears up in two to six weeks. Remember, you may notice your symptoms subside before the infection is completely gone. So do not mistake a lack of symptoms as a sign that your syphilis has been prematurely cured. You’ll still want to finish your antibiotic regimen as prescribed by your doctor.

What happens is syphilis goes untreated?

If left untreated for long enough, syphilis in any stage can develop into neurosyphilis or ocular syphilis (syphilis of the brain and nervous system or eyes, respectively). Ocular syphilis can cause your vision to worsen and in rare circumstances can even cause blindness. Neurosyphilis may lead to difficulty with muscle movements, coordination, paralysis, and even dementia.

How will syphilis affect my pregnancy?

Syphilis can be spread from a mother to her baby during pregnancy or delivery, causing miscarriage, stillbirth, and death of the infant even after delivery. It is recommended that all pregnant women be tested for syphilis. If you do get treated during your pregnancy, your doctor will want to retest you to make sure the infection is gone.

How do I get tested for syphilis?

Getting tested for syphilis is easy and takes only a few minutes out of your day. To order a syphilis test through Priority STD Testing, simply select the test from our online catalog and stop by a nearby testing facility at your convenience to have the test administered. We have more than 4,000 testing centers across the United States and no appointments are necessary. Once your test has been administered, you should have your results in just 24-72 hours. And if you need assistance at any point, just contact one of our care counselors.

Can I take an at-home syphilis test?

While there are at-home testing options for syphilis, be warned that administering a test yourself can certainly affect the accuracy of your results. Be wary of at-home options that are not approved by the FDA. Though many brands will claim to be just as accurate as any other option, the truth is you simply don’t know what you’re getting. In addition, in using a self-administered testing kit, directions can sometimes be unclear which can lessen your chances of an accurate reading. The best case when it comes to accurate syphilis testing is to find a reputable STD testing service and let the experts handle the process start to finish.

What if I have additional questions?

If you have questions about the syphilis testing process, or are wondering if you should get tested, contact one of our Priority STD Testing care counselors. They’ll be able assist you in finding the right tests, understanding your results, and planning for future steps to get you back on the path to wellness.

Medically reviewed by Amy Cyr MD
Reviewed on 12/14/2021

Verified STD testing provider by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on 12/01/2020.
Recognized member of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) since 2015.
Named best STD test provider by Healthline on 03/24/2021.

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