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Sexual Conditions Health Center

Syphilis - Symptoms

Syphilis develops in four stages, each with a different set of symptoms.

Primary stage

During the primary stage of syphilis, 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). The sores are usually painless and are not easily seen.
  • 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 usually 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.1

Secondary stage

Secondary syphilis is characterized by a rash that appears 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 reddish brown, small, solid, flat or raised skin sores that are less than 2 cm (0.8 in.) across. But 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 (called condyloma lata) may be present.
  • In dark-skinned people, the sores may be a lighter color than the surrounding skin.

The skin rash usually heals within 2 months. on its own without scarring. After healing, skin discoloration may occur. But even though the skin rash has healed, syphilis is still present and a person can still pass the infection to others.1

When syphilis has spread throughout the body, the person may have:

  • A fever of usually less than 101°F (38.3°C).
  • A sore throat.
  • A vague feeling of weakness or discomfort throughout the body.
  • Weight loss.
  • Patchy hair loss, especially in the eyebrows, eyelashes, and scalp hair.
  • Swelling of the lymph nodes.
  • Nervous system symptoms of secondary syphilis, which can include neck stiffness, headaches, irritability, paralysis, unequal reflexes, and irregular pupils.
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: August 07, 2012
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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