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Stages of Syphilis - Topic Overview

Syphilis is described in terms of its four stages: primary, secondary, latent (hidden), and tertiary (late).

Primary stage

During the primary stage, a sore (chancre) that is usually painless develops at the site where the bacteria entered the body. This commonly occurs within 3 weeks of exposure but can range from 10 to 90 days. A person is highly contagious during the primary stage.

  • In men, a chancre often appears in the genital area, usually (but not always) on the penis. These sores are often painless.
  • In women, chancres can develop on the outer genitals or on the inner part of the vagina. A chancre may go unnoticed if it occurs inside the vagina or at the opening to the uterus (cervix), because the sores are usually painless and are not easily visible.
  • Swelling of the lymph nodes may occur near the area of the chancre.
  • A chancre may also occur in an area of the body other than the genitals.
  • The chancre lasts for 3 to 6 weeks, heals without treatment, and may leave a thin scar. But even though the chancre has healed, syphilis is still present and a person can still pass the infection to others.

Secondary stage

Secondary syphilis is characterized by a rash that appears from 2 to 8 weeks after the chancre develops and sometimes before it heals. Other symptoms may also occur, which means that the infection has spread throughout the body. A person is highly contagious during the secondary stage.

A rash often develops over the body and commonly includes the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.

  • The rash usually consists of a reddish brown, small, solid, flat or raised skin sore or sores that are less than 2 cm (0.8 in.) across. The rash may look like other more common skin problems.
  • Small, open sores may be present on mucous membranes. The sores may contain pus, or moist sores that look like warts may be present (condyloma lata).
  • In dark-skinned people the sores may be a lighter color than the surrounding skin.
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: October 08, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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