Syphilis testing and prevention

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Who Should be Tested for Syphilis?

Anyone who is sexually active can get syphilis, but some people have an increased risk of acquiring syphilis. Your risk of syphilis may be higher if you:

  • Are gay, bisexual or a man who has sex with men (MSM).
  • Have unprotected sex, especially if you have several partners.
  • Are living with HIV.
  • Have had sex with someone who has tested positive for syphilis.
  • Tested positive for another STI, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, or herpes.

A person who is pregnant and has syphilis can pass the infection to their baby. Pregnant persons should get tested for syphilis during pregnancy. The infection can cause death or severe health problems in babies and children.

You should get tested if you or someone you have sex with has symptoms. If you think you have syphilis, get tested at your doctor’s office, a local health department, community health clinic or an STD clinic. 
Simple blood tests can tell if you have syphilis. You can have syphilis without symptoms, so get tested to be sure.

STI testing isn’t always part of your regular checkup - you may have to ask for it. Be open and honest with your nurse or doctor so they can help you figure out which tests are best for you. 

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How is Syphilis Diagnosed? 

You can’t tell if you have syphilis just by the way you feel. Like all STIs, the only way to know is to get tested.

Syphilis is sometimes called "the great imitator" because early symptoms are similar to those of many other infections. Sexually active people should consult a doctor or other health care worker about any rash or sore in the genital area. Those who have been treated for another STI, such as gonorrhea, should be tested to be sure they do not also have syphilis.

There are three ways to diagnose syphilis:

  • Recognizing the signs and symptoms.
  • Examining blood samples.
  • Identifying syphilis bacteria under a microscope.

The doctor uses these approaches to diagnose syphilis and decide the stage of infection and appropriate treatment.

Blood tests also provide evidence of infection, although they may give false-negative results (not show signs of an infection despite its presence) for up to 3 months after infection. False-positive tests (showing signs of an infection when it is not present) also can occur. Therefore, two blood tests are usually used. 

Interpretation of blood tests for syphilis can be difficult, and repeated tests are sometimes necessary to confirm the diagnosis.
 

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How can I protect myself and others from Syphilis?

It is important that you advocate for your sexual health, you can start by doing the following: 

  • Before you get intimate, talk with your partner about past partners, STI history and drugs that use needles. The CDC provides conversation starters for the topic.
  • Create a Safer-Sex Strategy. Condoms, used correctly and every time you have sex, lower risk for all STIs
  • Find a doctor with whom you can have honest conversations.
  • Get tested—and retested as needed. For any STI, the earlier you catch it, the better your treatment options. 
  • Know the symptoms, but remember that symptoms can often go unnoticed.
  • Notify your partners and make sure they get tested. You can do this in person, anonymously, or by contacting your State Health Department for help.
  • Seek treatment. If you do test positive, syphilis is curable!