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Understanding Syphilis -- Symptoms

What Are the Symptoms of Syphilis?

There are three stages of syphilis. Call your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • In the first (primary) stage, which usually starts about three weeks after exposure, a painless sore called a chancre appears on the genitals, rectum, anus, or mouth. Lymph glands near the chancre may be swollen as well. The chancre lasts three to six weeks and will heal on its own. This does not mean that you are cured. Left untreated, the disease may progress to the second stage.
  • In the second (secondary) stage, which occurs weeks to a few months later, a non-itchy red or reddish-brown spotty rash may appear anywhere on the body (often on the palms of the hands and bottoms of the feet). You may have symptoms, such as headache, fever, fatigue, sore throat, muscle aches, swollen lymph glands, patchy hair loss, loss of appetite, weight loss, and pain in bones and joints (all of which could be symptoms of other diseases, as well). Symptoms may then disappear, but without treatment the bacteria remain in the body.
  • In the third (late) stage, which can start anytime from one year to several decades later, joints may be affected, resulting in arthritis. The infection also can affect other specific parts of the body, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, bones, and liver. Anywhere from 25% to 40% of people that have not been treated will develop late stage syphilis. This can result in cardiovascular syphilis and neurosyphilis. 


Recommended Related to Sexual Conditions

Understanding Chlamydia -- Prevention

To reduce the risk of getting infected with chlamydia, use a condom each time you have sex. Limit the number of sexual partners, or consider practicing abstinence. If you think you are infected, avoid sexual contact and see a doctor. Most doctors recommend that all people who have more than one sexual partner, especially women, be tested for chlamydia regularly even in the absence of symptoms.

Read the Understanding Chlamydia -- Prevention article > >

Cardiovascular syphilis can appear 10-30 years after the initial infection, causing damage to the heart and blood vessels.

Neurosyphilis can occur in the nerves and may cause paralysis, blindness, dementia, psychiatric problems, or loss of sensation in the legs. 

Without treatment, syphilis can be life-threatening. It is extremely important to treat it before it progresses to a later disease stage. Treatment should be taken even if there are no current symptoms. 

Call Your Doctor If:

  • You see the characteristic chancre sores or rash of syphilis
  • You have been exposed to someone with the disease


WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 23, 2014

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