Syphilis – Frequently Asked Questions
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum.
Congenital syphilis is a disease that occurs when a mother with syphilis passes the infection on to her baby during pregnancy.
It can have major health impacts on your baby. How congenital syphilis affects your baby’s health depends on how long you had syphilis and if — or when — you got treatment for the infection.
Congenital syphilis can cause:
- Miscarriage (losing the baby during pregnancy),
- Stillbirth (a baby born dead),
- Prematurity (a baby born early),
- Low birth weight, or
- Death shortly after birth.
Up to 40 percent of babies born to women with untreated syphilis may be stillborn or die from the infection as a newborn.
For babies born with congenital syphilis, it can cause:
- Deformed bones,
- Severe anemia (low blood count),
- Enlarged liver and spleen,
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes),
- Brain and nerve problems, like blindness or deafness,
- Meningitis, and
- Skin rashes.
No. It is possible that a baby with congenital syphilis won’t have any symptoms at birth. But without treatment, the baby may develop serious problems. Usually, these health problems develop in the first few weeks after birth, but they can also happen years later.
Babies who do not get treatment and develop symptoms later on can die from the infection. They may also be developmentally delayed or have seizures.
Many people infected with syphilis do not have any symptoms for years, yet remain at risk for late complications if they are not treated.
Although transmission appears to occur from persons with sores who are in the primary or secondary stage, many of these sores are unrecognized. Thus, most transmission is from persons who are unaware of their infection.
A brief outline of symptoms is listed below. For more detailed information, please visit our Stages and Symptoms page.
Primary Stage: One or more sores (called a chancre), that are firm, round, small, and painless. The first symptom begins from 10 to 90 days after infection, lasts three to six weeks, and heals without treatment. Without treatment the infection progresses into the secondary stage.
Secondary Stage: Skin rash and mucous membrane lesions begin shortly after the primary stage is complete. Rashes appear as rough, red, or reddish brown spots both on the palms of the hands and the bottoms of the feet. Additional symptoms include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue.
Latent Syphilis: Causes no symptoms and the infection can only be detected with a blood test. If not treated, latent syphilis continues for life. Although many people with latent syphilis never have serious problems, some progress to the final stage, called late (tertiary) syphilis.
Late (tertiary) Stage: Begins when secondary symptoms disappear and affect the body internally. Signs and symptoms include difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness, and dementia. Syphilis is not contagious at this stage, although the damage it does to the infected person can result in death.
Yes, with proper medical treatment all stages of syphilis can be cured. However, internal damage done during late stages of syphilis and neurosyphilis cannot be reversed.
- In Nevada, pregnant women are required to be tested in the first and third trimester.
- Sexually active men who have sex with men.
- Anyone who is living with HIV and is sexually active.
- Anyone who is taking PrEP for HIV prevention.
- Sexually active people should consult a health care provider about any suspicious rash or sore in the genital area.
- Anyone who has been treated for another STD.
- Anyone getting an STD or HIV test.
Syphilis is passed from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore. Sores occur mainly on the external genitals, vagina, anus, or in the rectum. Sores also can occur on the lips and in the mouth.
Transmission of the organism occurs during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Pregnant women with the disease can pass it to the babies they are carrying.
Syphilis cannot be spread through contact with toilet seats, doorknobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, bathtubs, shared clothing, or eating utensils.
If you have a sore on your genitals, have an STD check. Special tests can diagnose syphilis from sores and blood. Anytime you have a test for STDs, ask for a syphilis blood test also. Syphilis is known as the great imitator because its symptoms often resemble other STDs.
Yes. Syphilis is very dangerous. In addition to infecting other people, untreated syphilis can cause brain damage, heart disease, neurological problems and other long-term health problems. Once internal damage is done from syphilis it cannot be repaired, even after being cured from the syphilis itself.
Pregnant women can also pass syphilis to their unborn babies. This is known as congenital syphilis.
You and your sex partner(s) must be examined and treated. If partners are not treated, they can give the infection back to you, or infect others.
You will no longer be contagious once the treatment is completed, however, your blood will continue to show that you have had this infection. Analysis of the blood by your doctor will help determine if your medication worked and if you need any additional treatment.
Visit our Resources page for testing locations.
- Plan ahead.
- Protect yourself.
- If you’re thinking of having sex with a new partner:
- Talk about STDs
- Tell your partner that you want to have protected, safer sex (male or female condoms)
- Suggest an STD check-up for both of you before having sex.
It can. People with HIV sometimes have unusual results on syphilis blood tests, which can make it more difficult to diagnose.
Additionally, they may have increased risk for neurosyphilis and are more likely to have treatment failure using the regular dose of antibiotics, and may need higher doses.
Therefore, it is important that people with HIV and syphilis follow up carefully with a doctor to make sure the infection has been successfully cured.
Syphilis is treated by an intermuscular injection of Benzathine Penicillin G. Not everyone responds to the normal dosage so follow-up testing is highly recommended. Other antibiotics can be used for patients allergic to penicillin.
Using a condom correctly and consistently can reduce the risk of infection. However, sores and rashes associated with syphilis infection are not always in an area protected by the condom. Any contact with an open sore or rash can infect you with syphilis.
Yes. Having syphilis does not give you immunity from getting syphilis again.
The syphilis bacterium can infect the baby of a woman during her pregnancy. Depending on how long a pregnant woman has been infected, she may have a high risk of having a stillbirth (a baby born dead) or of giving birth to a baby who dies shortly after birth.
An infected baby may be born without signs or symptoms of disease. However, if not treated immediately, the baby may develop serious problems within a few weeks. Untreated babies may become developmentally delayed, have seizures, or die.
Since 2009, the State of Nevada requires that pregnant women are screened for syphilis during their first and third trimesters.
Testing in both first and third trimester will improve the chances of diagnosing and treating pregnant women with syphilis, which may reduce or eliminate the infection spreading to the fetus and reduce or avoid the related complications.
Updated on: February 9, 2022