Syphilis is a bacterial infection passed on during its contagious stages either by contact with an open sore near genitals or the mouth or after the sores have disappeared and are replaced by a rash that is accompanied by flu-like symptoms. Sometimes the sores go unnoticed as there is no pain. Syphilis can be treated and cured through a series of injections given at a clinic; however, if left untreated, syphilis can cause serious complications.
*Not everyone will experience symptoms
If untreated, syphilis progresses through four stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. Each stage has different symptoms.
Primary Syphilis (three days to three months after exposure)
Syphilis usually begins as a small, generally painless sore where infection has occurred. This can be on the anus, genitals, throat, or cervix (which is only visible during a gynaecological exam). This sore often heals on its own but this does not mean the syphilis infection is gone.
Secondary Syphilis (six weeks to six months after exposure)
Secondary syphilis manifests in symptoms that include general malaise and feeling unwell, swollen glands, fever, hair loss, flu-like symptoms, rashes, headaches, eye infection, muscle pain, joint pain, and genital warts.
The rash can look like rough, red, or reddish-brown spots on the palms of your hands and/or the bottoms of your feet. Sometimes it shows up elsewhere on the body. These rashes are not itchy and may stay from two to six weeks.
These symptoms may come and go on their own but this does not mean the syphilis infection is gone. Typically, these symptoms last up to 12 weeks but can persist longer until syphilis moves to the next (latent) phase.
Most of the time, people don’t even realize they have syphilis. That’s part of the reason it’s a common infection (and why it’s important to get tested regularly).
Latent Syphilis (this phase can last from months to years)
During this phase, syphilis continues to infect the body and multiply but often with no symptoms. Lesions or rashes from primary or secondary stages can recur.
Tertiary Syphilis (two to 30+ years)
If left untreated during the previous three stages, tertiary syphilis can cause long-term major health complications to the heart, brain, bones, and blood vessels. In rare cases, complications caused by tertiary syphilis can lead to death.
Transmission and Prevention
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is transmitted through unprotected vaginal, oral, or anal sex with someone who has syphilis, particularly when there is direct contact with syphilitic sores (which might not be noticeable). It can also be passed on through mutual masturbation and sharing of sex toys and transmitted from a pregnant individual to their baby during childbirth (that is why STI testing is a routine part of prenatal care). It is rare but possible for syphilis to be transmitted through sharing needles for IV drug use, medical procedures (blood transfusions, transplants), and breastfeeding.
There has been a significant increase in cases of syphilis in the last decade and it is now the third most common reportable STI in Canada after chlamydia and gonorrhea, especially for young men and men who have sex with men. Getting tested routinely is an important step in keeping ourselves healthy.
Syphilis is treated with antibiotics. Typically with an injection of penicillin. The dosage depends on the stage and severity of the infection.
Swab of infected area or blood test.