By Wendy Innes. May 7th 2016

Syphilis affects many people every year in the United States, but it doesn’t have to. By understanding what syphilis is, how it’s spread and how it can be prevented, people can protect themselves from this sexually transmitted disease (STD). Here readers can gain a better understanding of syphilis and how to protect themselves.


Syphilis is one of the most common STDs in the United States. It is known as “the great imitator” because its symptoms are very broad and can often be misdiagnosed as other conditions. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are more than 36,000 cases of syphilis diagnosed each year.  Of those, most are diagnosed in people who are 20 to 39 years of age. It is especially prevalent in women ages 20 to 24, and in men ages 35 to 39. Syphilis can be spread to a child during pregnancy and birth and can have debilitating effects, eventually leading to the death of the child if left untreated.

Causes and Risk Factors

Syphilis is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. Syphilis is passed from one person to another through contact with a syphilis sore. The sores are usually painless and can go unnoticed. Sores can be found on the external genitals, vagina, penis or in the anus. They can also occur in the mouth as a result of contact during oral sex or kissing if someone has an open sore in his or her mouth. Syphilis is not transmitted through contact with toilet seats, or through swimming pools, hot tubs, eating utensils or other casual means.

  • Once a person is infected with the bacterium, it can lay dormant in the body for years or even decades. This can make it very difficult to pinpoint where the disease came from.
  • Syphilis is contagious during the primary and secondary stages. Occasionally it can be transmitted in the early latent period of the disease as well. Even if a person is cured of syphilis, he or she can be re-infected from contact with another syphilis lesion.
  • Having syphilis puts a person at a higher risk of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. It’s easier for the virus to enter the body when there are open syphilis sores present on the genitals or in the mouth.


The symptoms of syphilis vary greatly and are separated into four stages. The symptoms can be very vague, making diagnosis difficult. Often syphilis can be misdiagnosed as many other conditions.

1.Primary Stage

During the primary stage of syphilis, a sore called a chancre (pronounced shang-kur) develops. This sore marks the point of entry into the body for the infection. This sore is usually painless and can go unnoticed because it is concealed within the vagina or anus. The chancre usually develops within three weeks of infection and clears up on its own in about six weeks.

2. Secondary Stage

Within a few weeks of the original chancre healing, someone who is infected with syphilis many develop a rash that begins on the trunk but spreads to the rest of the body, including the palms and soles of the feet. This rash is often misdiagnosed as a simple viral rash which is allowed to run its course instead of being treated with medication.

The rash may be accompanied by wart-like sores in the mouth or genitals, muscle aches, fever, sore throat and swollen lymph nodes. These symptoms may disappear on their own or they could come and go frequently for up to a year.

3. Late or Latent Stage

In this stage, syphilis typically has no symptoms at all. If left untreated a person can remain in this stage of the condition for the rest of his or her life, or the disease can progress to the next stage.

4. Tertiary or Late Stage

This is the final stage of syphilis. About 15 to 30 percent of people with the disease progress to this stage. In the tertiary stage, damage to other systems in the body occurs including the brain, heart, blood vessels, eyes, nerves, liver, bones and joints. This occurs many years after the initial infection if the disease is left untreated. 


Treatment for syphilis is very simple if caught in the early stages. Penicillin derivatives are highly effective at treating the infection. However, for those allergic to penicillin, their doctor can recommend other antibiotics that are also effective. Currently, the only approved treatment for syphilis in pregnant women is penicillin, so a pregnant woman may need to go through a desensitization process before she can be treated.  If a pregnant woman is treated for syphilis, her child will need to be treated as well upon birth.

If caught within the first year, a single injection of penicillin may be all that is needed to cure the infection. Infections that have been present for more than a year may need additional doses but a doctor will monitor the infection with blood work to determine how much penicillin is needed. Sometimes a combined therapy of penicillin injections and pills may be used as well.

After the penicillin injections, a person may experience something called Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction. Symptoms of this reaction include fever, chills, achy pain, headache and nausea. The symptoms will typically only last one day and are not life threatening.

After treatment, a person may be asked to undergo additional testing for other STDs, including HIV, as well as notifying previous sexual partners so that they can be tested and treated as well.

Syphilis is definitely not the end of the world and is easily treated, leaving no lasting effects. However, the best offense is a good defense. By practicing safe sex, people can prevent the spread of syphilis by virtually eliminating their risk of contracting it. When it comes to STDs an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.


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