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Syphilis - Symptoms

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Latent (hidden) stage

If untreated, an infected person will progress to the latent (hidden) stage of syphilis. The latent stage is defined as the year after a person becomes infected. After the secondary-stage rash goes away, the person will not have any symptoms for a time (latent period). The latent period may be as brief as 1 year or range from 5 to 20 years.

Often during this stage, an accurate diagnosis can only be made through blood testing, the person's history, or the birth of a child with congenital syphilis.

A person is contagious during the early part of the latent stage and may be contagious during the latent period when no symptoms are present.

Relapses

About 20 to 30 out of 100 people with syphilis have a relapse of the infection during its latent stage.2 A relapse means the person was symptom-free but then started having symptoms again. Relapses can occur several times.

When relapses no longer occur, a person is not contagious through contact. But a woman in the latent stage of syphilis may still pass the infection to her developing baby and may have a miscarriage or a stillbirth or give birth to a baby infected with congenital syphilis.

Tertiary (late) stage

This is the most destructive stage of syphilis. If untreated, the tertiary stage may begin as early as 1 year after infection or at any time during a person's lifetime. A person with syphilis may never experience this stage of the illness.

During this stage, syphilis may cause serious blood vessel and heart problems, mental disorders, blindness, nerve system problems, and even death. The symptoms of tertiary (late) syphilis depend on the complications that develop. Complications of this stage include:

Congenital syphilis

Congenital syphilis refers to syphilis passed from a mother to her baby during pregnancy or during labor and delivery. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force strongly recommend that all pregnant women be screened for syphilis because of the severe consequences of being pregnant while infected or having a child born with congenital syphilis. Screening should be done:3, 4

  • At the first prenatal visit for all pregnant women.
  • At the beginning of the third trimester of pregnancy and again at delivery for women who are at high risk for syphilis.

Congenital syphilis increases the risk of fetal death and medical complications in newborns. Syphilis enters the fetal blood system through the placenta, causing infection in the newborn or death of the fetus. Symptoms of congenital syphilis include:

  • A highly contagious watery discharge from the nose.
  • Painful inflammation of the bone coverings.
  • Contagious rash that frequently appears over the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.
  • Reduced red blood cells in the blood (anemia).
  • Enlarged liver and spleen.
  • Swelling of the lymph nodes.
  • Failure to grow and develop normally (failure to thrive).

Because there are other conditions with similar symptoms, an accurate diagnosis is important for treatment.

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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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