Cause: Caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. Transmitted from skin-to-skin contact with fluid from an open syphilis sore during unprotected oral, anal, or vaginal sex.
Symptoms: There are often no symptoms, and if there are they are very similar to other infections. Syphilis alternates between an active state and an inactive state. If syphilis is in an inactive state, you will not show any symptoms even though you have the infection. When symptoms do occur, they occur in stages as defined below.
- Primary: A painless sore can develop where syphilis entered the body. Often it will not be noticeable, but if there is a sore then it increases the chances of getting or passing HIV. The sore occurs most often in the genital area and occurs anywhere from 3-90 days after contact. The sore will go away on its own in a few weeks, but the syphilis infection will continue to progress.
- Secondary: A non-itchy rash can develop anywhere from 14-90 days after being infected with syphilis. The rash can appear anywhere but is mostly found on the chest, belly, genitals, and palms of hands and soles of feet. Headache, fever, hair loss, swollen lymph nodes and bumps or patches in the mouth, anus, penis, or vagina can occur.
- Latent (Hidden) Stage: If syphilis is not treated, it progresses to a hidden stage that can last up to 30 years or more. This can lead to complications.
- Late stage: Untreated syphilis can cause damage to the brain, heart and other organs, which could even lead to death.
- Neurosyphilis: Infection of the central nervous system that can occur at any stage. Symptoms can include a headache, dizziness, personality changes, balance problems, dementia, vision changes, hearing loss, and numbness/weakness in the legs.
Testing: Most results are accurate 3 weeks after contact with syphilis.
Syphilis is diagnosed with a blood test and fluid from sores can be swabbed.
Treatment: A special kind of penicillin is used (there is a different kind of treatment available for those with a penicillin allergy). You must take the medication exactly as prescribed and take all the pills, even if you feel better. While treatment can cure syphilis, it canâ€™t undo damage caused by syphilis in the late stage.
You will need to abstain from oral, vaginal, and anal sex for 14 days after the initiation of treatment.
You will be asked about who you had sex within the past 3-12 months. This is because syphilis is a reportable infection. Anyone you have sex with will need to be tested and treated. Partners are almost always given medication whether they have symptoms or not.