Syphilis. The facts you need.

Syphilis: The FactsCases of gonorrhoea and syphilis are increasing every year all over the world.  That means that there’s much more chance of catching it if you have unprotected sex, and passing it on to someone else.

In this article we’re going to look at the symptoms to look out for, as well as how to treat and prevent syphilis.

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

The difficulty with syphilis symptoms is that they can be easily confused with other conditions or may be mild.  This means that they may not be treated until the disease has damaged your body and/or you have passed it on to other sexual partners.

Symptoms to look out for are:

  • Sores, called chancres, appear on the penis (including the head of the penis

    Syphilis sore on the skin. Picture from

    under the foreskin), vulval area, in the vagina, anus, in the rectum and mouth.

  • They may be single sores or there may be several of them.
  • They are usually firm, round and painless but may bleed easily.
  • They often have a ‘punched out’ appearance, with a raised edge.
  • They last from 3 to 6 weeks.
  • There may be some swelling of the lymph nodes in the groin or neck – you may notice small, tender lumps in the neck or groin.
  • The sores usually develop about 3 weeks after you are infected, but can appear from 10 to 90 days after.
syphilis sores

Syphilis sores. Picture from

syphilis sore

Syphilis sore on penis.







These are the symptoms of Primary Syphilis.  You can see photos of syphilis chancres here – they can be small or large and can form inside the vagina or anus so that you may not know they’re there.

Left untreated Primary Syphilis will develop into Secondary Syphilis.  This means that the sores disappear but the disease moves on to its secondary stage.

Symptoms of Secondary Syphilis include:

  • Non-itchy rash which comes just as the sore is healing or a few weeks later
  • The rash often (but not always) makes the skin feel rough, and is red or brownish in colour.  It is commonly on the palms of the hands and/or soles of the feet.  However it can mimic rashes from other diseases, look different to what we’ve described here and be in other places on the body.
  • Fever
  • Swollen glands
  • Sore throat
  • Hair loss in patches
  • Headaches
  • Weight loss
  • Muscle aches
  • Tiredness

You may have some or all of these symptoms and they go away without treatment.  However the infection is still in the body and if not treated will go on to its more damaging stages.

Late and Latent Syphilis can appear 10 to 20 years after the initial infection. Where the disease has been ‘quiet’ in the body it has been damaging its organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, liver, bones, joints and the blood vessels. Symptoms of Late and Latent Syphilis include:

  • Dementia
  • Blindness
  • Paralysis
  • Numbness
  • Difficulty walking or coordinating muscle movements
  • Death can occur if the damage is severe.

What tests will the doctor do for syphilis?

If you see the doctor when you have a sore, s/he may take a swab of the cells in the sore and send it to the lab for testing.

Otherwise a simple and inexpensive blood test will accurately show whether you have syphilis.

What is the treatment for syphilis?

If you’ve had the disease for less than a year, a single injection of penicillin will cure syphilis.

If you’ve had it for longer than a year you may need further shots.  This will cure the disease but won’t reverse any damage that may have already been done.

For people who are allergic to penicillin, there are different antibiotics that are used.

There are no home remedies for syphilis.

You must not have sex when you have the sores.

What causes syphilis?

Syphilis is a bacterial disease. The bacteria is called Treponema pallidum.

It is passed on through oral, vaginal or anal sex with a person who has syphilis sores.

Who gets syphilis?

Men and women, gay and straight people can get syphilis.

Pregnant women can pass the infection onto their unborn babies and this can increase the risk of the baby being born dead or dying shortly after birth.  Babies born with syphilis who survive but are untreated are likely to have a developmental delay and/or seizures.

What’s the outcome for people with syphilis?

Treatment in the first year after catching syphilis is usually very successful and prevents the disease from developing into more damaging Latent or Late Syphilis (see above).

Treatment after a year is also very successful.

See above for the long-term affects and symptoms of Late and Latent Syphilis.

If you have had syphilis once then there is no protection from getting it again.  You can become re-infected by having unprotected sex with an infectious partner.

Syphilis can increase the risk of getting HIV/AIDS because the sore make it easier to transmit the virus infection.  The risk increases to 4 or 5 times more than a person without syphilis getting HIV/AIDS.

How can I prevent syphilis?

Abstinence is the only sure way of preventing any sexually transmitted infection, as well as being in a mutually monogamous relationship (where you and your partner don’t have sex with anyone else).

Condoms offer some protection but as the sores can occur on areas of the body that are not covered by a condom, this can transfer the disease from or to you.

  • Use condoms properly
  • Discuss sexual history with a new partner
  • Avoid drinking too much alcohol or using ‘recreational’ drugs.


Here is more information about syphilis from the CDC.

If you’re worried about your symptoms or medical problem but don’t want to seek professional help because you feel embarrassed, silly or that it’s your fault in some way, read this page now:  How to talk to a doctor about an embarrassing problem.

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