Syphilis develops in four stages, each with a different set of symptoms.
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.
Secondary syphilis is characterized by a rash that appears 2 to 12 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.