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What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by bacteria. Syphilis is spread through direct contact with the sores of an infected person. This usually happens through sexual activity, especially unprotected sex. It can also spread through sharing needles or contact with the blood of an infected person. If you are pregnant, you can give syphilis to your baby.

What are the signs and symptoms of syphilis?

Your symptoms may go away within a few weeks or come and go for up to 1 year. You may have any of the following:

  • Primary syphilis may develop without any signs or symptoms. You may not know you have syphilis and can spread it by accident. You may develop a chancre sore 10 to 90 days after you were exposed to the bacteria:
    • A chancre sore is a small sore on your skin where it came into contact with the bacteria. You can have more than one. It can appear anywhere on your body but is most common on the penis, vagina, anus, or inside the mouth. The sore heals without treatment in 3 to 6 weeks.
  • Secondary syphilis develops 2 to 8 weeks after the chancre appears and may include any of the following:
    • A red, bumpy, scaly rash appears on your torso, arms, and legs. It may spread to the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet. This rash does not usually itch.
    • Gray or white mouth sores may be painful and your mouth may feel swollen. You may have a sore throat. You may have red, open sores at the corners of your mouth.
    • Large, raised, white, or gray skin sores may be found in warm, moist areas of your body.
    • A fever, headache, swollen glands in your neck or other signs of infection.

What else do I need to know about syphilis?

Without treatment, you may develop complications. This may include damage to your brain, nerves, heart, and other areas. These problems may occur 3 to 4 years, or more, after the original infection.

How is syphilis diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history and examine you. He will ask if you have had an STI before. He will ask if you have ever had unprotected sex. Tell him if a sexual partner has had syphilis or another STI. You may also need any of the following tests:

  • Blood tests may show the bacteria that causes syphilis.
  • A sample of tissue or fluid from a sore will give healthcare providers information about your infection. This will help them plan the best treatment for you.

How is syphilis treated?

  • Acetaminophen decreases pain and fever. It is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. Read the labels of all other medicines you are using to see if they also contain acetaminophen, or ask your doctor or pharmacist. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly. Do not use more than 4 grams (4,000 milligrams) total of acetaminophen in one day.
  • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.
  • Antibiotics help treat the bacteria that caused your syphilis.

How can I prevent the spread of syphilis?

  • Do not have sex until treatment is complete. This usually takes at least 2 months. Your healthcare provider will tell you when you can resume sexual activity.
  • Tell your sexual partners about your syphilis. Tell everyone you have had sex with in the past 3 months. They need to be checked for infection and may need treatment.
  • Use condoms and barrier methods for all types of sexual contact. Use a new condom or latex barrier each time you have sex. This includes oral, vaginal, and anal sex. Make sure that the condom fits and is put on correctly. Rubber latex sheets or dental dams can be used for oral sex. Ask your healthcare provider how to use these items and where to purchase them. If you are allergic to latex, use a nonlatex product such as polyurethane.
  • Get tested for HIV. You are at increased risk of HIV if you have syphilis.

Call 911 for any of the following:

  • You have chest pain and pain on your left arm, jaw, or back.
  • You have shortness of breath.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have a headache and a stiff neck.
  • You are confused.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You are pregnant and think you have syphilis.
  • You have a new rash, sore throat, or swollen joint.
  • Your symptoms do not go away after treatment, or they come back.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.