School of Medicine

Wayne State University School of Medicine

Syphilis

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. Syphilis is passed from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore which usually occurs on the external genitals, vagina, anus, or in the rectum. Despite myths, syphilis cannot be spread through contact with toilet seats, doorknobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, bathtubs, shared clothing, or eating utensils.

Many people infected with syphilis do not have any symptoms for years, yet remain at risk for late complications if they are not treated. Syphilis has three progressive stages: Primary, secondary, and late. A sign in the primary stage of syphilis is a single sore that is usually firm, round, small, and painless. Signs of the secondary stage of syphilis include a red rash on the hands and bottoms of feet, fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue. During the late stage of syphilis, difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness, and dementia are symptoms.

Untreated syphilis damages internal organs and the sores make it easier to spread the HIV infection sexually.

A blood sample, or a sample of a sore is needed to test for syphilis. Syphilis is easily treated with antibiotics if it is caught in the early stages, but the treatment will not fix any damage done to internal organs. Syphilis sores need to be completely healed before having sex again and your sex partners need to be tested and treated.

Ways to prevent syphilis:

  • Abstain from sex.
  • Only have sex with one partner who has been tested, and you know is not infected.
  • Always use condoms. Syphilis is spread through contact with the skin, so even correct condom use may not prevent syphilis if infected areas are not covered.