Can Syphilis Be Cured?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can be cured in its early stages with antibiotics. But if it's untreated, it can have serious complications.

Awareness of the risk of syphilis is important because the number of cases in the United States doubled between 2014 and 2019. It rose another 6.8% in 2020. This article will explain how syphilis progresses, how it can be cured, and what can happen if it's not treated.

Healthcare provider carries tray with penicillin injection for syphilis

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What Is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the Treponema pallidum bacteria. People usually get it by coming in contact with a syphilis sore on another person's penis, vagina, anus, or mouth. Symptoms commonly appear about three weeks after transmission, but it can happen sooner or take up to three months.

Here are the stages of syphilis and how it can be treated as it progresses. The sooner it's diagnosed and treated, the less risk there is of complications, and infecting others. Here are the stages of syphilis:

Stage One

In stage one, the first symptom is a single sore called a chancre. A chancre is round, firm, and usually painless. Some people may have more than one sore.

The chancre develops where the bacteria made contact with the body. For example, it may be inside the vagina, where it can go unnoticed but still transmit the bacteria to other people during sexual activity.

Chancres last a few weeks and then heal, whether or not you have treatment. However, the syphilis bacteria is still present in your body, and you can transmit it to others even after the sore has gone away.

Stage Two

When the chancre is healing or soon after, reddish or reddish-brown rashes develop on the skin. They are usually on the palms or the soles of the feet but may appear elsewhere. They don't itch and can be faint and easy to overlook.

The rash may also appear as large grey or white areas called condyloma lata, which form in moist places like the underarms, groin, or mouth. In addition, there may be small sores in the vagina, anus, or mouth. Other symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Sore throat
  • Patchy hair loss
  • Headaches
  • Weight loss
  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue or malaise

You can transmit syphilis to others during the second stage. The symptoms of secondary syphilis will go away with or without treatment, but the syphilis bacteria is still present in your body if you have not been treated.

Stage Three

The third stage of syphilis is called "latent," which means there are no symptoms, though you still have syphilis. Experts divide stage three into early and late phases. Some people relapse during this time to the second stage.

Latent syphilis can last for years. It may not progress or reemerge, but serious complications can occur if it does. You can still transmit syphilis to others during the latent stage.

Stage Four

The fourth stage of syphilis is called "tertiary syphilis." About a third of those with syphilis will progress to this stage, a third will have syphilis but be asymptomatic, and a third will fight off the syphilis bacteria without treatment.

Stage four can appear anywhere from 10 to 30 years after a person has contracted syphilis. It can be fatal in some cases, though treatment advances have made that less likely. It increases the risk of contracting HIV and can affect organs, including:

  • Brain
  • Nervous system
  • Eyes
  • Heart
  • Liver
  • Bones
  • Blood vessels
  • Joints

A person in stage four cannot transmit syphilis to others.

Is It Curable?

Yes, syphilis is curable. Early treatment to cure it can prevent transmitting it to others and keeps syphilis from progressing. However, if you are exposed to syphilis again, it can be transmitted to you, and you will need treatment again to cure it.

How Long Does It Take to Cure Syphilis?

The only way to know when syphilis is cured is through blood tests. After treatment, follow a healthcare provider's recommendations about testing. They can tell you when the infection is cured and when it's safe to be sexually active again. It can take weeks for the infection to be eradicated.

Treatment

It takes just one injection of penicillin to cure most cases of syphilis in the first and second stages. In the third and fourth stages, it takes three or more injections or infusions of penicillin. If a person is allergic to penicillin, other antibiotics can be used.

Curing syphilis will not reverse organ damage, which healthcare providers will treat according to what part of the body is affected.

Preventing Syphilis

The only reliable way to prevent syphilis is to abstain from sexual activity. Syphilis sores can be easy to overlook because they may not hurt and may be on the inside of your genitals or anus. Wearing condoms, using dental dams, and being hygienic with sex toys can help. Talk candidly with sexual partners about possible exposure.

Complications If Left Untreated

If syphilis is not treated, it can progress. If it reaches the fourth (tertiary) stage, it can cause serious damage to the brain, heart, liver, and other organs. Untreated syphilis can be life-threatening at this stage. It can also cause dementia, paralysis, and blindness.

Summary

Syphilis cases are on the rise, but it is a curable disease when diagnosed. An antibiotic injection is usually enough to cure syphilis. It progresses in stages, and the sores and other symptoms may disappear. However, that does not mean the infection has gone away—only antibiotics can cure syphilis.

Untreated syphilis can progress to the fourth stage, which can be serious and even life-threatening. It's essential to get diagnosed and treated for your health and to prevent the transmission of syphilis to others.

A Word From Verywell

There's no longer a reason for syphilis to be dreaded. It can be cured—but only if you know you have it.  If you have any reason to think that you may have contracted it, don't be embarrassed to contact a healthcare provider.

Consider the risk to sexual partners and the relief of knowing that your syphilis has been cured. To ensure you don't transmit syphilis, refrain from sexual activity until a healthcare provider gives you the go-ahead.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you live a normal life with syphilis?

    You can live a normal life, but it's important to take precautions to protect others. First, get treatment and wait until a healthcare provider tells you you are cured before you have sexual activity. If syphilis progresses to the last stage, it can affect many vital organs and be life-threatening.

  • Can you get syphilis again after receiving treatment?

    You are at risk of reinfection with syphilis even after treatment. Any time you come in contact with a syphilitic sore, it can be transmitted to you.

  • How long can you have syphilis without knowing it?

    Syphilis symptoms appear and then fade, though the infection does not. You can have syphilis for years without knowing it. The best course of action is to be checked by a healthcare provider if you suspect you've been exposed to syphilis.

  • Does syphilis stay in your body forever?

    If you are treated with antibiotics that kill the infection, you no longer have syphilis in your body unless you become reinfected.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National overview of STDs, 2020.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STD facts - syphilis (detailed).

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Syphilis - CDC fact sheet.

  4. American Academy of Dermatology. Syphilis: signs and symptoms.

  5. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Syphilis: diagnosis and treatment.

  6. National Organization of Rare Diseases. Syphilis, acquired.

  7. Planned Parenthood. How do you prevent syphilis?