Syphilis Causes, Prevention, Complications And Treatment


Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is primarily transferred through sexual contact. Lips, genitalia, or the rectum sores are common places for the illness to first manifest itself. Syphilis can spread from one person to another through contacting sores on the skin or mucous membranes.

The syphilis germs can remain dormant in the body for decades following the first infection before coming back to life. Rarely, early syphilis can be cured with just one dose of penicillin.

If untreated, syphilis can be deadly because it seriously harms the heart, brain, and other organs. Syphilis may be passed from mothers to their unborn children.


Treponema pallidum is the bacteria that causes syphilis. By coming into touch with an infected person's sore while engaging in sexual activity, syphilis is most frequently disseminated. Minor skin or mucous membrane tears or abrasions allow the bacteria to enter the body. Both the main and secondary phases of syphilis, as well as occasionally the early latent stage, are communicable.

Syphilis can also less often spread by kissing or other close contact with an active lesion. During pregnancy or childbirth, moms might potentially transmit it to their unborn children.

Using the same toilet, bathtub, clothing, or dining utensils, as well as from doorknobs, hot tubs, pools, or swimming pools, will not spread syphilis.

Syphilis does not recur on its own after being treated. You could contract the infection again if you come into contact with someone's sore from syphilis.

How to check if you have Syphilis?

If you or your child notices any strange discharge, pain, or rash, especially if it appears in the groin region, call your doctor right at once.

Risk Factors

You have a greater chance of getting syphilis if you:

  • Having sex without protection
  • Have sex with several people
  • A man who engages in male sex
  • Are infected with the HIV virus, which is the cause of AIDS.


As syphilis advances through various stages, the symptoms change. The stages may overlap, and the symptoms don't always appear in the same order. infection is possible to have syphilis and never show any signs of infection.

Initial syphilis

A chancre, often known as a tiny sore, is the initial symptom of syphilis. A sore appears where the bacteria entered your body. Patients with syphilis often only develop one chancre, however this can happen more than once.

The chancre appears three weeks after exposure. As the chancre is painless and can be concealed within the vagina or rectum, many people with syphilis fail to notice their condition. Within three to six weeks, the wound will naturally heal.

Subsequent syphilis

A rash that starts on your trunk and ultimately covers your entire body, including the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet, may appear a few weeks after the first chancre heals.

Usually not itchy, this rash may also be accompanied by sores that resemble warts in the mouth or genitalia. Some individuals may have hair loss, muscle problems, fevers, sore throats, and swollen lymph nodes. These warning signs and symptoms might fade away in a few weeks or recur for up to a year.

Uncured syphilis

Syphilis advances from the secondary stage to the hidden (latent), when there are no symptoms, if ignored. It is possible for symptoms to disappear completely or for the disease to advance to the third (tertiary) stage.

Third-degree syphilis

About 15% to 30% of syphilis patients who refuse treatment go on to develop tertiary syphilis, which is a more severe form of the disease. In its latter stages, the illness may damage the liver, bones, joints, brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, and other organs. Before these problems appear, many years may have passed since the initial, untreated infection.


Syphilis has the capacity to expand at any stage and injure several organs, including the brain, nervous system, and eyes.

Born with syphilis

Newborns of syphilis-positive mothers may get the disease after delivery or through the placenta. While some babies with congenital syphilis develop a rash on their hands, the majority of them show no signs of their feet and hands, respectively.

Later signs and symptoms may include deafness, teeth abnormalities, and saddle noses (when the bridge of the nose collapses).

Syphilis-positive newborns can also be premature, pass away in the womb prior to birth, or experience postpartum mortality.


There is not a syphilis vaccine.To help avoid syphilis, abide by the following recommendations:

Monogamy or abstaining from it. The only foolproof way to avoid getting syphilis is to avoid having sex. Mutually monogamous sex, in which both partners solely engage in sexual activity with one another and are free of infection, is the second-best option.

Invest in a latex condom. If the condom covers the syphilis sores, it can lower your chance of getting the disease.

Steer clear of substances of abuse. Alcohol and drug abuse can impair judgement and cause you to engage in risky sexual behaviour.

Notifying partners and taking preventative measures

If tests reveal that you have syphilis, your sexual partners, including spouses and anybody else you have slept with in the previous. In order for them to get tested, the three to one year olds must be notified. If they are contaminated, they can then receive treatment.

Syphilis can be contained by giving partners official, private notice. Additionally, the practise directs persons who are at risk into counselling and appropriate care. Additionally, since syphilis can be acquired more than once, telling a partner lowers your risk of contracting it again.

Pregnant ladies are screened

People who have syphilis may not even be aware of it. Health experts advise that all pregnant women undergo syphilis screening since the illness may often have fatal consequences on unborn children.



Syphilis is easily cured if detected and treated in its early stages. Penicillin, an antibiotic drug that may destroy the bacterium that causes syphilis, is the chosen therapy at all stages. Your doctor could advise another antibiotic or penicillin desensitisation if you have a penicillin allergy.

A single injection of penicillin is advised as the first line of therapy for primary, secondary, or early-stage latent syphilis, which refers to an infection that occurred within the previous year. It is possible that you will require more doses if you have had syphilis for more than a year.

Pregnant syphilis patients are only advised to take penicillin. Women who have penicillin allergies may be able to use penicillin if they go through a desensitisation procedure.

Even if you receive syphilis treatment while pregnant, your newborn should be examined for congenital syphilis and treated with antibiotics if found to be positive.

You can experience what is known as the Jarisch-Herxheimer response on the first day of therapy. Fever, chills, nausea, achy discomfort, and a headache are some of the symptoms. Usually, this response does not last more than a day.

Treatment aftercare

Following syphilis treatment, your doctor will advise you to:

  • Make sure you are responding to the prescribed dosage of penicillin by getting regular blood tests and physicals. The kind of follow-up you receive depends on the stage of syphilis you have.
  • Until the course of treatment is finished and blood tests show the infection has been cured, refrain from sexual contact with new partners.
  • Inform your partners so they may get tested for sex and seek treatment if required.
  • Be subjected to an HIV test.

Complications of Syphilis

Syphilis may harm your entire body if it is not treated. Additionally, syphilis raises the risk of contracting HIV and can be problematic during pregnancy. Harm that has already happened cannot be repaired or undone, but treatment can help avoid future harm.

Little growths or tumours

Bumps (gummas) can appear on the skin, bones, liver, or any other organ in the late stages of syphilis. Gumma commonly goes away after receiving antibiotic therapy.

Neurological conditions

Numerous issues with the neurological system can be brought on by syphilis, including:

  • Headache
  • Stroke
  • Meningitis
  • Loss of hearing
  • Issues with vision, including blindness
  • Dementia
  • Loss of warmth and pain perception
  • Male sexual dysfunction
  • Urinating involuntarily
  • Cardiovascular conditions
  • The aorta, the largest artery in your body, as well as other blood arteries may enlarge and bulge.
  • Heart valves may potentially be harmed by syphilis.

Having HIV

Adults with vaginal ulcers or sexually transmitted syphilis are thought to have a two- to five-fold greater risk of getting HIV. Given that syphilis sores bleed easily, sexual activity presents an opportunity for HIV to enter the bloodstream.

Obstetric and birth complications

You run the risk of giving syphilis to your unborn child if you are pregnant. The likelihood of miscarriage, stillbirth, or the death of your infant within a few days of delivery is significantly increased by congenital syphilis.

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Page last reviewed: May 2, 2023

Next review due: May 2, 2025

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