What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. Syphilis is spread from person to person by direct contact with a syphilitic sore (called a chancre) through oral, anal, or vaginal sex. Syphilis progresses in stages, and if left untreated could eventually lead to organ damage and death. It can be treated with antibiotics, but is becoming harder to treat due to some resistance developing to the typical antibiotics used to treat. It also has the ability to return if re-exposure occurs.

Signs and Symptoms:

Stage 1-Primary Stage

  • One or more painless ulcers/sores at the point that syphilis entered the skin
  • Sores last 3-6 weeks with or without treatment
  • Treatment is needed to prevent moving to Stage 2 even if sores have gone away

Stage 2-Secondary Stage

  • Skin rash commonly found on hands and/or feet but possible on other parts of the body. Rash is usually red or reddish brown spots with no itching.
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Patchy hair loss or baldness
  • Sore throat
  • Headaches
  • Weight loss
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Symptoms disappear with or without treatment
  • Without treatment, symptoms move to Stage 3

Stage 3-Latent Stage

  • Latent stage means the syphilis lies dormant in the body with no visible signs or symptoms. This may go on for years.
  • Treatment is needed to prevent potential progression to stage 4

Stage 4-Tertiary Stage

  • Tertiary stage does not always occur but if it does, it is usually 10-30 years after initial infection
  • Damage to internal organs, heart, blood vessels, nervous system and/or brain
  • Death

Of note, syphilis can invade the nervous system (termed neurosyphilis) and the eyes (termed ocular syphilis) when in any of the stages above. Symptoms of neurosyphilis can include headache, behavior changes, paralysis, coordination difficulties, numbness, and dementia. Symptoms of ocular syphilis can include eye pain and redness, vision changes, and vision loss resulting in possible permanent blindness.

When to see a Provider:

If you feel that you have symptoms or have had a known exposure to an infected partner, call to schedule an appointment with a provider as soon as possible for testing and treatment. Females should schedule an appointment in the Women’s Health Clinic if symptoms are present so that a pelvic exam can be completed. Males should schedule an appointment in the Medical Clinic. Sexual partners should also be treated to prevent reinfection.



  • Abstinence from ALL sexual activity (Oral, vaginal, anal) is the only 100% way to prevent an STD. STD’s are spread by contact of skin, blood or body fluids.
  • Condom usage during all sexual encounters for the entire duration of genital contact will reduce the spread of a STD. Condoms are available for men and women as well as dental dams for oral sex.
  • Refrain from using drugs and/or alcohol in sexual situations.


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