What is Syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can cause irreversible damage to the body when left untreated. Syphilis is transmitted by having sexual contact with the penis, vagina, mouth, or anus of a person who has it.
Syphilis can also spread from a pregnant person with untreated syphilis to their unborn baby. This is called congenital syphilis.
Syphilis is curable, but the complications and consequences when left untreated are serious and can even be fatal. When a pregnant person with untreated syphilis passes it to their unborn child, it can result in death or deformity of the child.
What are the Symptoms of Syphilis?
Syphilis develops in stages (primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary). Each stage can have different signs and symptoms.
Symptoms can appear 10 to 90 days after a person acquires syphilis, but usually within three to four weeks.
During the first (primary) stage of syphilis, you may notice a single sore or multiple sores. The sore is the location where syphilis entered your body. These sores usually occur in, on, or around the:
- lips or in the mouth
Sores are usually (but not always) firm, round, and painless. Because the sore is painless, you may not notice it. The sore usually lasts 3 to 6 weeks and heals regardless of whether you receive treatment. Even after the sore goes away, you must still receive treatment. This will stop your infection from moving to the secondary stage.
During the secondary stage, you may have skin rashes and/or sores in your mouth, vagina, or anus. This stage usually starts with a rash on one or more areas of your body. The rash can show up when your primary sore is healing or several weeks after the sore has healed. The rash can be on the palms of your hands and/or the bottoms of your feet and look:
The rash usually won’t itch, and it is sometimes so faint that you won’t notice it. Other symptoms may include:
- swollen lymph glands
- sore throat
- patchy hair loss
- weight loss
- muscle aches
The symptoms from this stage will go away whether or not you receive treatment. Without the right treatment, your infection will move to the latent and possibly tertiary stages of syphilis.
The latent stage of syphilis is a period when there are no visible signs or symptoms. Without treatment, you can continue to have syphilis in your body for years.
Without treatment, syphilis can spread to the brain and nervous system (neurosyphilis), the eye (ocular syphilis), or the ear (otosyphilis). This can happen during any of the stages described above.
Signs and symptoms of neurosyphilis can include:
- severe headache
- muscle weakness
- Change in your balance or feeling in extremities
- changes to your mental state (trouble focusing, confusion, personality change) and/or dementia (problems with memory, thinking, and/or decision making)
Signs and symptoms of ocular syphilis can include:
- eye pain and/or redness
- changes in your vision or even blindness
Signs and symptoms of otosyphilis may include:
- hearing loss
- ringing, buzzing, roaring, or hissing in the ears (“tinnitus”)
- dizziness or vertigo (feeling like you or your surroundings are moving or spinning)
Like the sore, the symptoms go away without treatment, but the person still has syphilis. If left untreated, the disease can cause health problems like arthritis, heart disease, mental illness, blindness and even death.
Is Syphilis Curable?
- Anyone who is worried that they might have syphilis should speak to their doctor as soon as possible, as prompt treatment can cure it.
- Early treatment with penicillin is important, as the infection can lead to life-threatening consequences in the long term.
- At a later stage, syphilis remains curable. However, a person may require a longer course of treatment.