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Syphilis - Symptoms, Risk Factors, Treatment, and Prevention

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Syphilis - Symptoms, Risk Factors, Treatment, and Prevention

4 min read


Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD), which can result in fatal complications if left untreated. Read the article to know more.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Bhalala Krishna Bhagvanbhai

Published At October 5, 2019
Reviewed AtAugust 3, 2023

What Is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection, which is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. It is a highly contagious disease, and it spreads primarily through oral and anal sex. This infection results in a sore on the genitals, mouth, or anus, which is usually painless. As the sores are painless, most of them go undiagnosed. As a result, the infected person is not aware of this infection and spreads it unknowingly to his or her sexual partner.

Syphilis 2

Syphilis if diagnosed during the early stage, is treated with a single shot of Penicillin. This bacteria can lie dormant in the body for many years after the initial infection. Sometimes, this bacteria can cause severe infections of the heart and brain, which can even be fatal.

Syphilis can be transmitted from one person to another through the skin or mucous membrane contact with the painless sore. An infected mother can also spread it to her child, which can result in abnormalities in the baby or death.

What Are the Symptoms of Syphilis?

There are three stages of this disease, and the symptoms depend on these stages. But in most cases, the bacteria can lie dormant for several years without causing any symptoms.

Syphilis 1

Primary syphilis:

After about 3 weeks of exposure, one or many painless, firm, non-itchy, and round sores appear on the genitals, mouth, or anus. Sometimes these sores may be hidden inside the vagina or anus, so they go unnoticed by the patient. These sores are called chancres, which disappears on its own in 3 to 6 weeks. But if left untreated, the disease might progress to the next stage.

Secondary syphilis:

Chancres spread to the trunk, hands, feet, sole, and the entire body. The sores appear reddish-brown in color. The other symptoms include:

The symptoms of secondary syphilis either resolve in a few weeks or keep coming back for some time. This stage progresses to the latent and late stages if left untreated.

Latent syphilis:

After the initial symptoms, the bacteria lie dormant in the body and produce no symptoms. Most people do not experience any symptoms after the initial attack for the rest of their life. But in some patients, the disease progresses to the next stage. Even if the person exhibits no symptoms, treatment is necessary.

Late or Tertiary syphilis:

With no treatment, around 15 to 30 % of patients develop tertiary syphilis. The symptoms of this stage can occur after 10 to 30 years of initial infection. The symptoms include:

  • Deafness.

  • Eyesight problems.

  • Mental illness.

  • Memory problems.

  • Heart disease.

  • Gummas (soft tissue swellings).

  • Stroke.

  • Impotence.

  • Meningitis.

  • Infection of the brain or spinal cord (neurosyphilis).


Here, the bacteria spreads to the nervous system. The symptoms seen are dementia, abnormal gait, concentration problems, confusion, seizures, vision loss, and fatigue.

Congenital syphilis:

When bacteria are transferred to a baby through the placenta or during delivery from an infected mother to her baby, it is called congenital syphilis. It is a life-threatening condition. If the mother is not treated, it can result in fetal death, preterm labor, low birth weight, neonatal deaths, and infection. The symptoms seen in newborns are:

  • Missing bridge of the nose (saddle nose).

  • Fever.

  • Underweight.

  • Genital or oral rash.

  • Blisters on hands and feet.

  • And the symptoms seen in infants are:

  • Peg-shaped teeth (Hutchinson's teeth).

  • Blindness.

  • Deafness.

  • Joint swelling.

  • Saber shin (malformation of the lower leg).

  • Gray patches and scarring around mouth, anus, and genitals.

How Is Syphilis Spread?

Treponema pallidum is the bacteria that causes syphilis. It is commonly spread when the skin or mucous membrane comes in contact with an infected person's sore during oral or vaginal or anal sex. Through minor cuts on the skin, the bacteria can enter the body. Bacteria can spread during the primary, secondary stages, and early latent period.

Sometimes, syphilis can spread through kissing, if an infected person has a mouth sore. The bacteria can also spread from an infected mother to an unborn child through the placenta or to an infant during delivery. You will not get infected by sharing utensils, clothes, swimming pools, and using the same toilet.

What Are the Risk Factors of Syphilis?

The following factors increase your risk of acquiring syphilis:

What Are the Complications of Syphilis?

Syphilis can damage your organs and can cause fatal complications if left untreated. The common complications include:

  • Gummas - Small bumps or tumors can develop in the skin, bones, liver or any other organ.

  • Neurological complications - Stroke, meningitis, deafness, eyesight problems, impotence in men, bladder incontinence, and memory loss.

  • Heart problems.

  • HIV - Sores on the body make it easier for HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) to enter the body.

How Will I Know If I Have Syphilis?

If the doctor suspects syphilis after taking a complete medical history and physical examination, he or she will suggest you get the following tests done:

  • Blood test - Antibodies in the blood indicate a present or past infection.

  • Fluid from the chancre is tested for the presence of syphilis bacteria.

  • Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) - CSF is collected and tested through the procedure called lumbar puncture or spinal tap.

Can Syphilis Be Treated?

Syphilis can be treated easily with a single shot of Penicillin during the primary and secondary stages. If you have a penicillin allergy, then your doctor might prescribe Doxycycline, Azithromycin, or Ceftriaxone.

In tertiary syphilis with nervous system involvement, Penicillin is given intravenously every day until the infection is controlled. The thing to remember is, Penicillin will only kill the bacteria, but will not reverse any damage that has already been done.

What Are the Precautions to Be Taken During the Treatment of Syphilis?

Some of the precautions to be taken are:

  • Avoid sexual contact when you are under treatment.

  • Avoid sex until the sores are healed.

  • You and your partner should be treated together, even if your partner does not have any symptoms.

Can Syphilis Be Prevented?

Even after getting cured, you can still get infected if you are exposed to the bacteria again. So follow these precautionary measures:

  • Sexual abstinence.

  • Avoid having multiple sex partners.

  • Avoid unprotected sex.

  • Use condoms during vaginal or anal sex.

  • Use a dental dam during oral sex.

  • Do not share adult toys.

To know more about ways to treat or prevent syphilis, talk to a doctor online through phone or video consultation, or post your query online

Frequently Asked Questions


What does syphilis look like?

After infection, the first sign of syphilis is a small and painless sore, which develops in the place where the bacteria entered the body. If it is left untreated, it might result in such sores on the entire body.


How do you get syphilis?

Syphilis is a common sexually transmitted bacterial infection. It spread when the skin or mucous membrane comes in contact with the sore of an infected person. This can happen during oral, anal, or vaginal sex, and by kissing a person with a mouth sore. An infected mother can infect her child during pregnancy or childbirth.


What causes syphilis?

Syphilis is a bacterial infection, and the bacteria responsible is Treponema pallidum. It is a common sexually transmitted disease (STD).


How common is syphilis?

Syphilis is a very common infection, which affects millions of people worldwide. The rate of people getting affected is growing each year exponentially. The rate is high amongst men who engage in sexual activities with other men.


How to test for syphilis?

The fluid from the chancre or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is tested for the presence of the bacteria Treponema pallidum. The presence of antibodies to this infection also indicated present or past infection.


Where did syphilis originate?

The exact origin of this disease is still not known. The first outbreak was recorded in Naples, Italy, in 1495. It is believed that the disease came to Europe from American explorers.


How long does it take to cure syphilis?

With or without treatment, the sore goes away in about 3 to 6 weeks. Treatment is done with a single shot of Penicillin, or a course of oral antibiotics for 2 weeks if you are allergic to Penicillin. If you were not treated, the bacteria lay dormant in the body for many years.


What are the manifestations of tertiary syphilis?

Tertiary syphilis is the last stage and can occur years after the initial infection. The signs and symptoms seen are vision loss, deafness, memory loss, heart problems, stroke, meningitis, and neurosyphilis (paranoia, mood swings, emotional problems, and muscle weakness).


Is syphilis 100% curable?

Syphilis can be cured with the help of antibiotics like Penicillin if detected early. The prognosis is bad for tertiary syphilis.


Can you get syphilis non-sexually?

Syphilis will not spread by sharing utensils, clothes, swimming pools, and using the same toilet. You can get infected by transfusing infected blood, and from an infected mother to her baby.
Dr. Bhalala Krishna Bhagvanbhai
Dr. Bhalala Krishna Bhagvanbhai



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