illustration of a syphilis pathogen
Syphilis is a bacterial infection transmitted through sexual intercourse and other sexual activities.

What Is Syphilis Exactly?

Syphilis is a bacterial infection transmitted through sexual intercourse and other sexual activities, caused by Treponema pallidum.

This infection is treatable during its initial stages. However, without appropriate treatment, it can cause disability, serious neurological complications, and even death. In the United States, there were more than 88,000 syphilis cases reported in 2016. While the rate of syphilis in women has been declining in the U.S., the rate of cases in men, especially in men who have sex with men, has been on the rise.

In this article, we’ll be discussing what syphilis is, the symptoms, the diagnosis process, treatment, and prevention strategies.

What Is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a serious infection caused by the Treponema pallidum bacterium that spreads through direct contact with a syphilis-infected sore in the mucous membranes or on the skin. Syphilitic sores usually appear on the vagina, rectum, anus, mouth, and lips.

Typically, syphilis is transmitted during oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse. However, syphilis can also be transmitted from an infected mother to her fetus during pregnancy, or to her infant during delivery. This type of syphilis is termed congenital syphilis.

The initial sign of this bacterial infection is a simple sore on the skin surface, mouth, genitals, or rectum. Due to the painless nature of this sore, some individuals don’t notice it. These sores heal within a span of three to six weeks, but treatment is needed to get rid of the bacteria.

Without proper treatment, the bacteria can stay in the body in a dormant state for several decades before recurring to destroy organs such as the brain.

What Are the Symptoms of Syphilis?

Syphilis is a little bit confusing as it has several different stages that can overlap or take place concurrently. What’s more, there may be periods when you won’t experience any symptoms but the syphilis bacteria will still be present in the body. Symptoms may differ among patients, and from one stage to another.

Primary Stage

A syphilitic sore, also known as a chancre, appears during this stage. Sores develop from three weeks to three months after infection with the bacteria and last approximately three to six weeks before healing on their own.

Sores may appear on the vagina, vulva, anus, scrotum, penis, and seldom on the mouth or lips. A chancre is typically hard, curved, and painless, and may at times be open and wet. These chancres may go undetected as they may hide beneath the foreskin, in the vagina, or in the rectum.

Secondary Stage

Syphilis symptoms in this stage include rashes on almost all parts of the body, including the hands and feet. Since a rash during this stage is painless, you may fail to notice it. You may also feel sickly and experience mild flu-like symptoms, including sore throat, headache, swollen glands, slight fever, and muscle aches. Sores may once again appear on the anus, vagina, or mouth.

Syphilis rash at this stage can last between two and six weeks and may recur for up to two years.

Late Stage

Once the secondary stage passes, your syphilis infection may remain dormant (total absence of signs or symptoms) for several months or sometimes even years. The late stage of this bacterial infection can lead to tumors, paralysis, and blindness. It can also harm your brain, nervous system, and other vital organs. The effects may be fatal in this stage.

Serious health problems from late-stage syphilis can arise one to two decades after the initial time of infection.

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How is Syphilis Diagnosed?

If you suspect you might have contracted syphilis, visit your doctor right away. Your doctor will carry out a thorough physical examination and take a blood sample to perform some tests. If you have a sore, your doctor will take a sample from it to confirm whether syphilis bacteria are present.

If you’re suffering from nervous system symptoms, your doctor may recommend a lumbar puncture, which involves collection and analysis of spinal fluid, to determine if they’re being caused by tertiary syphilis.

If you’re pregnant and experiencing usual symptoms, your physician may run some tests to rule out the possibility of syphilis bacteria being in your body. Such tests are instrumental in protecting the fetus from exposure to congenital syphilis.

Syphilis Treatment

A penicillin injection is enough to treat syphilis, especially during its primary and secondary stages. Penicillin is among the most common antibiotics used in treating syphilis effectively. If you’re allergic to penicillin, your doctor will prescribe a different antibiotic such as doxycycline, ceftriaxone, or azithromycin.

If you’re diagnosed with neurosyphilis, your doctor will give you daily dosages of penicillin intravenously. This treatment usually requires a short hospital stay.

During treatment, it’s essential that you abstain from all kinds of sexual activity until all chancres on your body have gone away and your doctor informs you that it’s safe to resume sexual activities.

Additionally, it’s important to ensure that any sexual partners are also treated to eliminate the infection.

Is Syphilis Curable?

Syphilis, in the early stages, is curable with antibiotic treatment. It’s imperative to seek medical attention at the first signs of infection to get appropriate treatment, as damage resulting from late-stage syphilis is usually permanent.

Syphilis Prevention

Syphilis doesn’t have a vaccine. Even after you are cured of the first exposure, you can still contract the infection again. Below are tips for preventing the spread of syphilis:

  • Abstain or practice monogamous sex: the only sure strategy for avoiding syphilis is to abstain from sex. The next best alternative is to engage in mutually exclusive sex with one uninfected partner.
  • Always use a condom: a latex condom can lower your risk of contracting syphilis, but the condom must cover the syphilitic sores.
  • Minimize recreational drugs or avoid them altogether: binge drinking and excessive use of other recreational drugs can
    affect your ability to think straight and result in unsafe sexual practices, thereby increasing your risk of contracting syphilis.
  • Don’t share sex toys.
  • Wear a dental dam during oral sex.


With rapid and accurate diagnosis and treatment, syphilis is a curable infection.

While treatment in the late stages of the infection may destroy the infection, the damage caused to essential organs like the brain and heart may be irreversible.

It’s important to always take preventive measures to minimize your risk of infection and serious complications.