Syphilis - What Happens
About 3 weeks-although the range is from 10 to 90 days-after a person is infected with syphilis, a sore (chancre) that is usually painless often appears on the genitals. This first stage in the course of syphilis is referred to as the primary stage. The chancre usually heals without treatment in 3 to 6 weeks.
If syphilis is not treated during the primary stage, it often progresses to later stages.
In the secondary stage of syphilis, a skin rash will usually develop about 2 to 12 weeks after the chancre appears. The symptoms usually disappear without treatment within 2 months.
After the rash clears, a person may have a period with no symptoms. This symptom-free period is called the latent (hidden) stage. Even though symptoms disappear, the bacteria that cause syphilis remain in the body and begin to damage the internal organs. The latent period may be as brief as 1 year or range from 5 to 20 years.
A person is contagious during the primary and secondary stages and may still be contagious during the early part of the latent stage. During this time, symptoms of the second stage of syphilis may reappear. This is called a relapse and can occur several times.
If not detected and treated, syphilis may then progress to the tertiary (late) stage, the most destructive stage of syphilis. During this stage, syphilis may cause serious blood vessel and heart problems, mental disorders, blindness, nerve system problems, and even death. It may begin as early as 1 year after infection or at any time during the infected person's life. About one-third of untreated people who are infected with syphilis will have the complications of tertiary (late) syphilis. Any organ system (such as the central nervous system) may become involved.
Complications of tertiary (late) syphilis include:
Congenital syphilis refers to syphilis passed from the mother to the baby during pregnancy or during labor and delivery. Congenital syphilis can cause complications in newborns and children.