5 Signs and Symptoms of Syphilis

May 7th 2016

Syphilis is a potentially life-threatening sexually transmitted disease that can lie dormant in the body for decades before actually causing any serious harm. Fortunately, syphilis is relatively easy to treat if it is caught in its early stages. Chancres and swollen glands characterize the first stage, while mouth sores and an all-over rash are typical signs of the second stage. If the infection is not treated in these early stages, it can eventually cause significant damage to the body's nerves, which causes a wide range of symptoms and may even be fatal.

First Signs

For most people infected with syphilis, the first noticeable symptom is a painless sore, called a "chancre," that appears close to the place on the skin where syphilis entered the body. Chancres usually appear approximately three weeks after exposure, but the sores can appear at any time from 10 to 90 days after infection. Often, lymph nodes in the vicinity of the chancre become swollen as the bacteria move to the lymphatic system.

Secondary Stage

During the secondary stage, which typically lasts from two to 12 weeks after the first appearance of the chancre, infected people are highly contagious. This stage is characterized by a rash, which usually presents as small, reddish-brown sores that are firm to the touch and noticeable all over the body, including on both the palms of the hands as well as the soles of the feet. Open sores may appear on mucous membranes during this stage as can small, wart-like lesions with moist surfaces called condyloma lata.

Later Stages

The symptoms of second-stage syphilis can appear suddenly, only to disappear just as abruptly. The rash and accompanying sores may come and go unpredictably for up to a year after first onset. After that, the syphilis infection is said to be latent. Latent syphilis is not characterized by any signs or symptoms of the infection, and it may last a lifetime.

For between 15 and 30 percent of sufferers, however, the disease eventually returns for a tertiary stage. Tertiary syphilis can occur 10 to 30 years after infection, and it often involves inflammation of the brain and central nervous system. The damage this causes to nerves can manifest as numbness, lack of coordination, paralysis, blindness or dementia.


Syphilis is a serious sexually transmitted disease that develops in stages. The disease is carried by bacteria, which can be treated with antibiotics during the early stages. Each stage of syphilis has distinct symptoms, and correctly identifying the signs of an infection during the early stages is essential to getting proper treatment and preventing the infection's spread.

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