Syphilis (SIF-i-lis) is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that progresses in 4 stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary (TER-she-air-ee). Syphilis is easily transmitted during vaginal, oral, and anal sex.
About 3 weeks after you are exposed to syphilis, a hard, small, and painless sore, called a chancre (SHANG-ker), will appear in your genital area. A chancre may also appear on the tongue, lips, or breast, or inside the vagina or rectum, where you cannot see it. The sore will seem to heal within a few days. Because it is painless, some people don’t know that they have the infection.
Several weeks after exposure to syphilis, you may notice a skin rash or patches over the chest, back, arms, and possibly the face. You may also have a fever, sore throat, or swollen glands. The rash will clear up on its own, even if the infection is untreated.
Early latent syphilis is the stage within 1 year of becoming infected with syphilis. Late latent syphilis is the stage after 1 year of becoming infected with syphilis. During this stage, there are no outward signs of infection, but the infection is still present.
Tertiary syphilis is the last stage. It begins any time after the latent stage. During this stage, major health problems begin to occur.
If left untreated, syphilis can cause complications, like heart disease and damage to the skin, liver, and other organs. Syphilis can also cause mental disorders, damage to the brain, seizures, blindness, and even death.
A pregnant woman with untreated syphilis can pass it on to the baby. It can cause serious damage to the baby’s skin, bones, eyes, teeth and nervous system. It can even cause death.
It is very important for pregnant women to get early and regular prenatal care to prevent infant health problems.
Your doctor can tell if you have syphilis by doing a simple blood test or by looking under the microscope at a sample of the chancre.
You will be given an antibiotic (AN-tee-by-OT-ik) through an injection to treat syphilis.
The disease can be cured, but it’s important to diagnose and treat it in the early stages, before the disease damages your organs. This damage cannot be taken back once it has occurred.
Reduce your risks
If you have sex, you could be at risk for having an STD. See your doctor to be tested. Following are some ways to reduce your risk. Don’t have sex. Not having sex is the only sure way to prevent STDs.
- Limit your sexual partners. The best protection is to have sex with only one person who is free of infection and who does not have sex with other people.
- Know your partner. Talk with your partner before you have sex. You should know your partner’s past sexual history. Has your partner ever had an STD? How many sexual partners has he or she had?
- Look before you have sex. Do not be afraid to look before you have sex. If you see any sores, a rash, or discharge, talk to your partner about it. But remember, you can’t always tell by looking.
- Always use a condom. Protect yourself by using latex condoms with spermicide every time you have sex. Carry them with you and be sure to use them. Using condoms the right way is very, very important.
- Get regular STD check-ups. You should get a regular check-up for STDs every
6 months if:
- You have sex with more than one partner
- You have sex with a new partner
- Your partner has sex with others
Just because you have cured an STD doesn’t mean you can’t get it again. You can be reinfected after treatment as often as you are exposed to each STD.
Other resources for STD information
Use condoms the right way
Except for not having sex (abstinence), latex condoms give the best protection from many sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Condoms are helpful only if they are used the right way.
Note: If you or your partner has an allergy to latex, talk with your doctor. Important steps for using condoms correctly:
- Use a latex condom every time you have sex.
- When using a lubricant, do not use anything oil-based like Vaseline. Use only water based lubricants like K-Y Jelly.
- Always put the condom on before the penis touches or enters the vagina.
- After ejaculation, the man should withdraw from the vagina while the penis is still erect. While taking the penis out of the vagina, hold onto the rim of the condom. This will keep it from slipping off.
- Pull the condom and the penis out of the vagina together.