What Are the Symptoms of Syphilis?

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on May 14, 2023
3 min read

There are four stages of syphilis. What symptoms you have depends on which stage of the disease you’re in. But the stages can overlap, and symptoms don’t always develop in the same order. You could even be infected with this sexually transmitted disease (STD) and not have any signs of it for years.

But even if you don’t have symptoms, you can still pass it on to your sexual partner. If you think you have it or have been exposed to syphilis, get treated right away.

The stages of syphilis are called “primary,” “secondary,” “latent,” and “tertiary (late).” This article deals with the symptoms typical of each stage.

Symptoms for the first stage normally appear 10 days to 3 months after you’re exposed to syphilis. You might notice that the lymph nodes near your groin are enlarged.

Typically, the first visible sign of syphilis is a small, painless sore (doctors call it a “chancre”) on the skin (you may develop several sores). It normally appears at the spot where the bacteria entered your body. The sore won’t hurt, and it may be hidden inside your rectum or vagina. You might not even know you have it.

The sore will heal on its own in about 3 to 6 weeks. But this doesn’t mean the infection is gone. It means you’re about to enter the second stage of syphilis.

About 2 to 10 weeks after the first sore appears, you may develop the following:

If you don’t get treatment right away, your symptoms will go away only to come back. This could happen for up to a year. Even if your symptoms don’t return, the infection is still alive in your body. Syphilis will get worse, and you can still infect your sexual partner.

If you’re not treated for secondary syphilis, the disease may progress to the latent (hidden) phase. Not everyone who has syphilis will go through this stage. If you do, you won’t have any symptoms, maybe for years. In some cases, symptoms will never return. But the infection isn’t gone; the bacteria remain dormant in the body. Some latent cases may progress to the tertiary stage of the disease. 

This is the final, most severe stage of syphilis. It can appear 10 to 30 years after the initial infection. You might experience permanent organ damage and death. Complications may include:

You can pass this STD on to your unborn child or to your baby during childbirth. Doctors call this congenital syphilis. If not treated there is a high risk of stillbirth and infant death.

Most babies born with syphilis have no symptoms. Some may have a rash on the palms of their hands or the soles of their feet. Eventually, babies can develop complications of many organs including:

See your child’s pediatrician right away if they develop an unusual discharge, sore, or rash near their groin.