How to Prevent the Transmission of Syphilis

May 7th 2016

Because of the subtle, painless symptoms, the early stages of syphilis often go unnoticed. When left untreated, the disease can have dire consequences.

How Is Syphilis Transmitted?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by bacteria that enters the skin at the point of contact. This usually occurs on the penis, vagina, rectum or anus but can also appear inside the mouth or on the lips. Syphilis spreads when an uninfected person makes contact with a moist sore or infected mucous membrane of an infected partner. A person with syphilis can be contagious for two years or longer if lesions exist and the disease goes untreated.

Who Is at Risk?

While any and every sexually active person is at risk of potentially contracting syphilis, transmission of the STD occurs most frequently in young men and women between the ages of 15 and 30. In 2013, 75 percent of the reported syphilis cases involved men who had sex with men, most of whom were between the ages of 20 and 29 at the time of infection. HIV-positive individuals are also at a higher risk of syphilis infection.

Congenital syphilis occurs when an infected mother passes the disease to her unborn child. Cases of congenital syphilis have decreased dramatically due to mandatory testing during pregnancy and after delivery. Prompt treatment typically prevents transmission of the infection from mother to child. When left untreated, syphilis causes stillbirths in 40 percent of congenital cases.

What Are the Treatment Options?

Syphilis is easily cured with an adequate dosage of traditional penicillin, but the disease often goes unnoticed during the first and sometimes second stages. Initially, a painless sore is the only indication of infection, and it is often hidden within the vagina, mouth or rectum. The lesion lasts three to six weeks and disappears with or without treatment.

Without treatment, individuals progress to the second stage of syphilis. Sores typically occur in mucous membranes within the mouth, vagina or rectum, and subtle, non-itchy rashes appear on various parts of the body. These symptoms also resolve with or without treatment. Late-stage syphilis occurs in about 15 percent of untreated cases, typically 10 to 20 years after the initial infection. During this stage, serious damage may occur within various parts of the body, including the heart, brain and nervous system. Some cases of late-stage syphilis are fatal.

How to Prevent Syphilis

The best way to prevent the transmission of syphilis is to abstain from sex or to commit to a single, uninfected partner who is also monogamous. Male and female condoms provide some protection when used properly, but are not effective against sores outside of the condom area. Individuals who think they may have syphilis should get tested immediately and avoid sexual contact. It is recommended that individuals also notify all sex partners within the past 90 days so they can seek treatment as well.


In 2013, 56,471 cases of first- or second-stage syphilis were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While syphilis is not as prevalent as gonorrhea, the sexually transmitted infection is common throughout the world and its symptoms might go unnoticed through the early stages of the disease. If left untreated, syphilis may result in more serious complications, including death. Sexually active individuals should understand the signs of syphilis and take preventive measures to protect themselves from the disease.

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