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Sexual Conditions Health Center

Syphilis - Topic Overview

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. If it's not treated by a doctor, it can get worse over time and cause serious health problems.

The infection can be active at times and not active at other times. When the infection is active, you have symptoms. When it's not active, you don't have symptoms, even though you still have syphilis. But even when you don't have symptoms, you can pass syphilis to others.

You don't have to have sexual intercourse to get syphilis. Just being in close contact with an infected person's genitals, mouth, or rectum is enough to expose you to the infection.

Bacteria cause syphilis. They usually enter the body through the tissues that line the throat, nose, rectum, and vagina. A person with syphilis who has a sore or a rash can pass the infection to others. An infected pregnant woman can also pass syphilis to her baby.

Some things increase your chance of getting syphilis. They include:

  • Having unprotected sex (such as not using condoms or not using them correctly). This risk is high among men who have sex with other men.
  • Having more than one sex partner and living in an area where syphilis is common.
  • Having a sex partner who has syphilis.
  • Having sex with a partner who has many sex partners.
  • Trading sex for drugs or money.
  • Having HIV.

You may not notice symptoms of syphilis. Sometimes they are the same as symptoms for other infections. This can cause someone with the infection to put off seeing a doctor. And it can make it harder for a doctor to tell if you have syphilis.

The four stages of syphilis have different symptoms.

  • Primary stage: One of the first signs is a painless open sore called a chancre (say "SHANK-er"). Because syphilis is usually spread when people have sexual contact, chancres are often found in the mouth, the anus, or the genital area. They may also be found wherever the bacteria entered the body.
  • Secondary stage: A skin rash and other symptoms may show up 2 to 12 weeks after a person is infected. At this stage, it is very easy to spread the infection through contact with the mouth, the anus, the genitals, or any area where there is a skin rash.
  • Latent stage: After the rash clears, a person may have a period with no symptoms. This is often called the "hidden stage." Even though symptoms go away, the bacteria that cause syphilis are still in the body and begin to damage the internal organs. This stage may be as short as 1 year or last from 5 to 20 years. Often, a woman with latent-stage syphilis doesn't find out that she has the infection until she gives birth to a child with syphilis.
  • Late (tertiary) stage: If syphilis is not found and treated in the early stages, it can cause other serious health problems. These can include blindness, problems with the nervous system and the heart, and mental disorders. It can also cause death.
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: November 14, 2014
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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