Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum and spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with an infected partner. Its telltale symptom is the appearance of an open ulcerative sore—known as a chancre—on the genitals, mouth, anus, or rectum.
Blood tests are used to detect syphilis and it is treated with antibiotics. Left untreated, syphilis can progress through distinct disease stages, each with different symptoms that can mimic other illnesses. In the extreme, syphilis can invade the nervous system, causing headaches, altered behavior, poor coordination, and dementia.
Consistent correct use of condoms, practicing long-term monogamy, and abstinence are the best ways to protect yourself against syphilis and other STIs.
Yes, syphilis can be treated with antibiotics, however, any damage done by the infection may not be reversible. Syphilis is commonly treated with a series of intramuscular injections of penicillin. For people who are allergic to penicillin, an alternative antibiotic may be effective.
A syphilis sore, known as a chancre, begins as a painless, firm, round bump on or near the genitals, anus, rectum, or mouth. There is usually only one sore, though more are possible, and chancres may be hidden inside the vagina or under the foreskin. A chancre may be mistaken for an ingrown hair or pimple, however, a chancre is not tender to the touch. Chancres sometimes break open and weep.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that is spread through intimate contact with an infected partner. Infection occurs when skin or mucosal tissue comes in contact with an open, ulcerative chancre. Routinely practicing safe sex can reduce your risk of contracting syphilis.
No, syphilis is not a virus. Syphilis is a bacterial infection caused by a spiral-shaped bacterium called Treponema pallidum. Unlike a viral infection that needs to run its course, syphilis can be treated with antibiotics.
Syphilis was first discovered in the early 16th century in Europe and was commonly referred to as the pox. Scholars believe it possibly existed prior to that and may have been mistaken as a type of leprosy. The origin of Treponema pallidum, the bacterium responsible for syphilis infections, is unclear, but may have mutated from a strain found in sheep or cattle.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that, left untreated, progresses through stages that may eventually lead to blindness, dementia, and death. Primary stage syphilis lasts three to six weeks. Secondary stage syphilis, characterized by an itchless body rash, lasts several months. Within a year, syphilis enters a symptom-less latent stage. Decades later, tertiary stage syphilis can result in multiple organ damage.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection that can be successfully treated with antibiotics. However, syphilis can go undetected and remain dormant in the body for decades. While the infection can be treated, damage caused by the illness cannot be reversed.
Syphilis is diagnosed through blood tests that detect antibodies to the bacterium Treponema pallidum. The antibodies, proteins produced by the body in response to an infection, remain in the bloodstream for years, and lab analysis can provide clues to when the infection occurred. Testing can be done at a doctor’s office, sexual health clinic, or at home with a kit purchased at a drug store or online.
A chancre is a firm, round, and painless sore found on or around the genitals, anus, or mouth. A chancre is the main symptom of the primary stage of syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. Chancre sores can sometimes break open and weep. The sores usually resolve on their own in three to six weeks, but the infection remains.
Congenital syphilis is a syphilis infection that is passed from a pregnant woman to her unborn child. It is a severe, disabling, and often life-threatening infection affecting newborns. Up to half of all babies infected with syphilis in the womb die shortly before or after birth.
Latent stage syphilis occurs approximately one year after contracting the sexually transmitted bacterial infection. During this stage of syphilis, the infection appears dormant and does not cause any overt symptoms. The latent stage can last for decades and, if left untreated, may progress to tertiary stage syphilis, a rare but serious condition that can lead to organ damage and even death.
Neurosyphilis occurs when an untreated syphilis infection spreads to the central nervous system. It can occur during any stage of infection and can result in partial paralysis or weakness, difficulty controlling emotions, personality changes, and progressive dementia. It can be treated with IV antibiotics, although the damage that occurs as a result of the infection may not be reversible.
Nontreponemal tests are blood tests that detect antibodies produced in response to syphilis, lupus, Lyme disease, and other infections. These tests include the venereal disease research laboratory (VDRL) test and rapid plasma reagin (RPR). Both tests are sensitive and inexpensive, but lack specificity and are followed up with treponema tests that detect specific antibodies for syphilis.
Ocular syphilis is an untreated syphilis infection that affects various structures in the eyes. It can occur during any stage of infection and most commonly presents as uveitis or panuveitis. Symptoms include vision changes, decreased visual acuity, and permanent blindness. Ocular syphilis can be treated with IV antibiotics, however, the damage caused by the infection may not be reversible.
Primary stage syphilis is the first stage of infection and is characterized by a sore known as a chancre that appears on or near the genitals, anus, or mouth. Symptoms can appear anywhere from 10 to 90 days after exposure to syphilis and last between three to six weeks. If left untreated, it will progress into secondary stage syphilis.
Secondary stage syphilis occurs anywhere from a month to six months after contracting the sexually transmitted illness (STI). The symptoms of secondary stage syphilis include an itchless body rash that may last several months before resolving on its own. Left untreated, the infection will progress to latent stage syphilis, which has no symptoms.
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections spread through intimate contact. Also known as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or venereal disease (VD), STDs can be caused by bacteria, parasites, and viruses. Common STDs include chlamydia, genital herpes, gonorrhea, HIV/AIDS, HPV, syphilis, and trichomoniasis. Correct usage of latex condoms reduces the risk of contracting an STD, but does not prevent all STDs.
Tertiary stage syphilis is a rare but serious condition caused by an untreated syphilis infection. Tertiary stage syphilis occurs in a small subset of patients and can affect multiple organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. Its symptoms vary depending on the affected organ systems and may be misdiagnosed as other, more common illnesses.
Treponemal tests are blood tests that detect Treponema pallidum antibodies, which are specific to syphilis. Treponemal tests—fluorescent treponemal antibody absorption (FTA-ABS), T. pallidum particle agglutination assay (TP-PA), and enzyme or chemiluminescence immunoassays (EIA or CIA)—are unable to distinguish between past and current infections and are used in conjunction with nontreponemal tests to diagnose syphilis.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Syphilis – CDC fact sheet (detailed). Updated January 30, 2017.
US National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Congenital syphilis. Updated October 8, 2020.
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