Syphilis: About Syphilis - Minnesota Dept. of Health

About Syphilis

General information about syphilis, including fact sheets, symptoms, complications, and treatment.

On this page:
What is syphilis?
Symptoms and stages
Who is at highest risk?
Complications
Transmission
Prevention
Testing
Partner notification
Treatment
More information

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that can have very serious complications when left untreated, but it is simple to cure with the right treatment.

Symptoms and stages

Syphilis is called “the great imitator” because so many signs and symptoms are similar to other diseases. A person can have syphilis and not know it.
Symptoms of syphilis in adults can be divided into stages:

Primary syphilis

  • Symptoms begin 1-12 weeks after exposure:
    • painless, open sore(s) on the mouth, genitals or anus
    • Sore(s) can be “hidden” in the vagina or rectum
    • Sore(s) last 1-5 weeks
    • Sore(s) goes away, but syphilis is still in the blood

Secondary syphilis

  • Symptoms show up 6 weeks to 6 months after sore appears:
    • A rash anywhere on the body
    • Flu-like symptoms
    • Whitish-grey patches on mouth/lips, wart-like lesions around genitals, and/or hair loss can occur but are less common

Latent and late stages

  • No sores or rashes, but syphilis is still in the blood and can affect the heart, brain and other organs over time (tertiary syphilis)

Who is at highest risk?

Syphilis occurs worldwide, most commonly in urban areas.
The number of cases is rising fastest in:

  • Women
  • Men who have sex with men
  • Young adults ages 15 to 25
  • People who exchange sex for drugs or money
  • American Indians and African Americans

Your risk of syphilis increases if you:

  • Have unprotected sex (do not use condoms or do not use them correctly).
  • Have multiple sex partners.
  • Have a sex partner who has syphilis.
  • Have sex with a partner who has multiple sex partners.

Syphilis in specific populations

Complications

  • Syphilis can be cured if it is diagnosed early and treated with prescription medication.
  • However, while treatment will prevent further damage, it will not repair damage already caused by late stage syphilis.
  • Untreated syphilis can be fatal.
  • Syphilis greatly increases the chance of HIV transmission.
  • People living with HIV may develop neurosyphilis faster than those who are negative.
  • In addition, untreated syphilis during pregnancy may spread to the developing baby. This is called congenital syphilis.

Transmission

  • Syphilis is passed from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore.
  • Transmission occurs during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
  • Pregnant women with the disease can pass it to the babies they are carrying.
  • Syphilis cannot be spread through contact with toilet seats, swimming pools, hot tubs, bath tubs, shared clothing, or eating utensils.

Prevention

Syphilis prevention methods can greatly reduce, but do not eliminate, the risk of transmission. Any sexually active person can get syphilis through vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

  • Condoms, when used consistently and correctly, can reduce the risk of syphilis only when the infected areas are covered or protected by the condom.
    • Always use condoms during vaginal and anal sex.
    • Use a condom for oral sex on a penis.
    • Use a barrier (dental dam or condom cut in half) for oral sex on a vagina or anus.
  • CDC Condom Locator
    Search by zip code to find free or low-cost condoms near you.

Testing

  • Get a test from a medical provider if infection is suspected.
  • Syphilis can be cured using medication prescribed by a medical provider.
  • Partners should be treated at the same time.
  • STD Testing
    Find free or low-cost testing near you.
  • All pregnant people should be screened 2-3 times during pregnancy.
  • Minnesota Women, Syphilis is on the rise: Get Tested (pregnancy card) Minnesota Women, Syphilis is on the rise: Get Tested (pregnancy card) (PDF)
    This 5.5" x 8.5" card reminds pregnant women to get tested for syphilis.

Partner notification

Always notify sex partners immediately if you are find out you have syphilis or another STD. It is important to make sure all partners are tested and treated.

  • STD/HIV Partner Services Program
    The Partner Services Program offers people who have been diagnosed with HIV or an STD free medical, prevention, and other services, including help with partner notification.

Treatment

  • Syphilis is easily curable at all stages with prescription medication.
  • All sexual partners of the person with syphilis should be treated at same time.
  • A person can be re-infected after treatment.

More information about syphilis