Syphilis is an infection caused by bacteria. It’s usually spread through sex. It's a type of sexually transmitted infection (STI).
The first symptom is usually a painless, red sore on the genitals, rectal area, or mouth. This is called a chancre (say “SHANK-er”). Later symptoms include a rash, a fever, and swollen lymph nodes. Your hair may start to fall out. Or you may feel like you have the flu.
Sometimes these symptoms go away on their own. But this doesn’t mean that the infection is gone. If you don’t treat syphilis with antibiotics, the infection can spread in your body. You can also spread it to others.
Antibiotics can cure syphilis and prevent more serious problems caused by it. You and your sex partner or partners need antibiotic treatment. This is to prevent passing the infection back and forth or to others.
What are the symptoms of syphilis?
One of the first signs of syphilis is an open sore that appears wherever the bacteria entered the body. As syphilis spreads, a person may get a skin rash and have other symptoms like a fever, swollen lymph nodes, and weight loss. Without treatment, syphilis may cause blindness and nerve and heart problems.
How is syphilis diagnosed?
Your doctor will do a physical exam. You'll be asked about your symptoms and your sexual history.
The diagnosis of syphilis is usually confirmed with one of several blood tests. This is especially true if you don't have sores. If you have sores, a doctor may look at the fluid from one of the sores with a microscope to look for syphilis bacteria. (This is called a dark-field examination.)
To diagnose the primary and secondary stages of syphilis, the doctor may do a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) in some cases.
More testing should be done to look for other sexually transmitted infections, such as:
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). People who have syphilis have a greater chance of being exposed to HIV.
How is syphilis treated?
Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics. Penicillin is the preferred medicine. You will need to be treated, and so will any sex partners that you may have exposed to the infection.
At any stage of the infection, antibiotics work well to cure syphilis. They can't undo the damage already caused by late-stage syphilis. But they can help you avoid further problems from the infection.
You cannot treat syphilis on your own. It must be treated with medicine that only a doctor can give you. Treatment helps you avoid other serious health problems. And it keeps you from spreading syphilis to others.
Being treated during pregnancy can help you avoid miscarriage or stillbirth. It can also help keep your baby from being born with syphilis.