Last updated: October 13, 2022
What is syphilis? (“syph,” “bad blood”)
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted Infection (STI) caused by a bacterium (germ) and is very serious.
How do I get syphilis?
Syphilis is passed from one person to another by anal, oral or vaginal sex, and it can be passed from mother to baby during birth.
What are the symptoms of syphilis?
- A chancre (pronounced shan-ker), a sore on the genitals, mouth or rectum, usually appearing 3 weeks after contact with an infected person but may range from 10 days to 3 months. Chancres are painless and can last for several weeks.
- A skin rash (most often rough, reddish spots on the palms of hands and bottoms of feet or on the trunk of body). The rash is usually not itchy. The rash commonly occurs if the chancre is not treated and usually starts about 5 to 12 weeks after the initial infection.
- Flu-like symptoms (sore throat, swollen glands, headaches, fatigue, achy muscles).
You may not notice any symptoms, or you may think the symptoms are from something else.
How can I prevent getting syphilis?
The best way to prevent getting syphilis is to avoid sexual contact with an infected person. One way to do this is by practicing abstinence. Abstinence means not having sex with anyone. Another way to prevent getting syphilis is by having only one partner who only has sex with you.
People who decide to have sex, especially if they have multiple partners, must be responsible for protecting themselves and others from infections. Do this by knowing the right way to use condoms and using them every time you have sex. Condoms can help prevent the spread of syphilis. Though not 100% effective, condoms are the best protection. Even if using another birth control method, use a condom if there is a risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease during sex. Also, it is important to avoid abusing alcohol and drugs because they can prevent you from making safe choices to protect your health.
What happens if I have syphilis and do not get treatment?
Syphilis is a very serious disease. Many people do not notice any symptoms. There are four stages of syphilis: primary stage, secondary stage, early latent (hidden) stage and late latent (hidden) stage.
The primary stage usually begins 10 to 90 days after sex; a painless single sore might appear in the area where contact was made. The most common areas are the penis, anus, cervix and the mouth. The sore is called a chancre and usually feels hard at the edges. It does not hurt. After 2 to 6 weeks, the sore heals with or without treatment. A person may have more than one chancre.
If a person is not treated in the primary stage, syphilis progresses to the secondary stage. The secondary stage usually begins about 6 to 8 weeks later and can last from 2 weeks to 6 months. Symptoms often include noticeable or faint rashes, which may appear on the palms of hands and the soles of feet. Additionally, a person often has flu-like symptoms, swollen lymph nodes, hair loss or flat, gray warts. These symptoms often go away in about 2 weeks.
If a person is still not treated in the secondary stage, syphilis progresses to the early latent (hidden) stage. The early latent stage can last for up to 1 year from original infection, but a person will show no visible signs, even though internal damage continues to take place.
Without treatment the disease will go to the late latent (hidden) stage. The late latent stage begins after all the other stages. Serious damage occurs to a person’s heart, nervous system, kidneys, eyes, bones and brain; and without treatment this disease can be fatal.
- Increased risk for getting HIV
- Damage to major organs, including the brain, heart and liver
- Damage to blood vessels, bones, eyes and joints
- Paralysis, blindness, dementia or death
- During pregnancy:
- Premature delivery
- Birth defects, including deafness and blindness
- If left untreated, can lead to death of the baby
Is there a test and treatment for syphilis?
Yes. There are blood tests to find the bacteria that cause syphilis. The sores can also be tested, and tests may have to be done more than once. Every person who is treated for syphilis must return to the clinic for more tests.
There is a special form of penicillin given as shots that can cure syphilis. The antibiotic can be given at any stage and will help to prevent any further damage. Remember, after a person has been cured, they can get syphilis again if they have sex with an infected person. If you think you have symptoms, call the Department of Health for confidential referral and treatment.
If you are diagnosed with syphilis, make sure all of your partners get treated; you can continue to be reinfected if you are not both treated. If you or your partner has syphilis, do not have sex until treatment is complete. Take all medicine as prescribed, even if you had no symptoms or your symptoms are gone.
If you are pregnant, get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Syphilis can be passed from mother to baby during birth. It is extremely important that all pregnant women receive prenatal care. Women that get prenatal care are routinely tested for syphilis. Both the mother and her baby can be treated and cured during pregnancy. Treatment will stop the damage; however, it must be repeated if the mother or her partner continues to have sex with infected people. Untreated syphilis in a pregnant woman may lead to the baby being stillborn or dying shortly after birth.
For more information, referrals or CONFIDENTIAL treatment, contact:
STI Prevention and Care Program
Anne Arundel County Department of Health
1 Harry S. Truman Parkway, Suite 200
Annapolis, Maryland 21401
Monday – Friday, 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.