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What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by bacteria (germs), called Treponema pallidum.

How does syphilis spread?

Syphilis mostly spreads through contact with a contagious sore or rash during unprotected oral, vaginal, and/or anal sex.  A person can spread the infection without knowing it.

Mothers may also pass it to their newborn baby during pregnancy.  It rarely spreads through sharing of needles and injection equipment or blood transfusions.

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

Syphilis goes through four stages, if left untreated.  Each stage may have different symptoms.

Stage

Symptoms

Primary

Usually appears 3 to 90 days after the germs enter your body

  • Painless sore(s) around exposed area (in and around the mouth, genitals and/or rectum)
  • Swelling of lymph nodes

Secondary

Usually appears 2 to 12 weeks after the germs enter your body

  • Rash on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, or other parts of the body
  • Flu-like symptoms (e.g., fever, sore throat, feeling unwell, headaches)
  • Sores in the mouth or genital areas
  • Swelling of lymph nodes
  • Wart-like bumps around the genital area
  • Patches of hair loss

Latent

 

  • There are no symptoms in this stage.
  • Infection can still spread to others if you are infected for less than 1 year.

Tertiary

Can take 1 to 46 years before the effects of the infection are seen.

  • If left untreated, the infection can cause serious illness, affecting your heart, skin, brain, bones, and other organs.
  • Symptoms depend on which organs the infection has spread.

What are other complications of syphilis?

Neurosyphilis is infection that has spread to the brain and/or spinal cord. This can occur during the secondary, latent, and tertiary stages of syphilis. Symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Personality changes
  • Dementia
  • Difficulty with muscle movement.

How do I get tested for syphilis?

A health care provider will do blood tests to test for syphilis.  If needed, the health care provider may also arrange to test the fluid from the spine in the lower back to see if the infection has spread to your brain and spinal cord.

How is syphilis treated?

If you have symptoms, see a health care provider as soon as possible. 

  • Tell your health care provider about any type of unprotected sex (oral, vaginal, or anal). 
  • Treatment includes antibiotics (medications that kill bacteria).  Treatment may require a few visits to your health care provider.  It is important to go every time and complete your treatment.  Even if your symptoms improve, you will still need to continue treatment.
  • You will need to have follow up tests to make sure that the medications have worked.  Blood results may always be positive even after you have been treated and cured.  It is important to tell your health care providers if you were treated for syphilis in the past.
  • It is important that you inform all of your sexual partners.   They will also need to be tested and treated.
  • Do not have sex until you and your partners are treated and the blood tests show that the medications have worked.
  • The Health Unit can notify your partners, while keeping your identity confidential.

How do I prevent the spread of syphilis?

You can be re-infected with syphilis after treatment.  Ways to prevent infection include:

  • Practicing safer sex, such as:
    • Abstinence (not taking part in any types of sex),
    • Mutual monogamy (both partners agree to only have sex with each other and have been tested for sexually transmitted and bloodborne infections (STBBIs)), and
    • Use latex and polyurethane male and female condoms and dental dams.  Condoms are available for free at the Health Unit.
    • Not sharing sex toys or thoroughly washing them with disinfectants between use
  • Getting tested for STBBIs, if you had unprotected sex and/or are not sure if you or your partners have a STBBI.  Infections, including syphilis, of the genital area may increase the risk of getting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Backview of a woman with a contraceptive in her jeans pocket

For more information

Contact the Health Unit or speak to your health care provider.

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