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all about syphilis

By: RSC Editorial Team

October 4, 2023

All About Syphilis

Of all the sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) out there, syphilis is one of the sneakiest. Unlike many other STDs, this sexually transmitted infection (STI) can lay dormant in the body for years, during which it can do serious damage that could ultimately lead to death.

Syphilis cases were once under control, but this STD has seen a resurgence in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 176,000 people contracted syphilis in 2021 alone. If you care about your health, it’s important to learn all about syphilis.

In this guide, you’ll learn about the stages of syphilis, its causes, and treatment options, as well as a few tips that can help you avoid contracting this STD. If you think you might have syphilis, order a rapid STD test now. The sooner you get tested, the quicker you can start the journey to recovery.

Stages of Syphilis

Syphilis begins with exposure to an infected person’s sores or bodily fluids. If you contract syphilis, you won’t notice right away. It can take 10 to 90 days for symptoms and signs to show up, but they usually appear within about 20 days for most people. During the time from exposure to clinical onset, you’re not yet infectious.

The first stage of syphilis is called primary syphilis. During this stage, the only symptom you’ll notice is a small, painless sore (called a chancre) at the site where the bacteria entered your body. You’ll usually see just one sore, but having a few of them is not uncommon.

Primary syphilis is highly contagious. If you spot an unusual sore, stop having sex and order same-day STD testing right away. You should also tell any recent sexual partners that you might be infected so they can get tested.

Without treatment, syphilis sores can last for six weeks. After this, the sores will heal on their own, but that doesn’t mean the infection has gone away.

Next, the infection progresses to secondary syphilis. This stage is marked by a non-itchy rash or rough, red patches. The rash can show up anywhere on your body but typically presents on the soles of your feet and palms of your hands. It might also spread to your torso.

You could also feel as though you’re coming down with the flu. You might have a sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, fever, muscle aches, and fatigue that won’t go away no matter how much you sleep.

Some people lose their hair in patches during the secondary stage. The good news is that this loss isn’t usually permanent. You should start to regrow your hair within three months of receiving treatment.

Next, you’ll enter the latent stage, during which you’ll see no symptoms. Latent syphilis can last for 20 years or more.

Lastly, the infection progresses to tertiary syphilis. This stage can cause blindness, heart problems, weakness, seizures, blindness, and brain damage. The damage can be enough to cause death.

Causes and Diagnosis

Syphilis spreads through sexual contact with an infected person. The bacterium that causes syphilis, called Treponema pallidum, can spread through vaginal, oral, or anal sex. You can catch it simply by coming into contact with an infected person’s sores, which means you can get syphilis even if you don’t engage in penetration.

Syphilis may also spread from infected mothers to their babies during birth. If you’re pregnant and think you could have syphilis, it’s critical to order a 10-panel STD test to protect your and your baby's health.

Now that you know all about syphilis causes, who can catch this STD? Anyone can get syphilis, although some people are at a higher risk than others. High-risk groups include:

  • Men who have sex with men
  • People with HIV
  • Those who have had syphilis before
  • People who have sex without a condom
  • Those who are non-monogamous

There’s quite a bit of mystery surrounding syphilis, so it’s a good idea to be aware of these common syphilis myths so you’re not caught off guard:

  • Once you’ve had syphilis, you can’t catch it again. This is untrue. Unlike some STDs, you can get syphilis again even if you’ve already received treatment for it before.
  • Syphilis isn’t a big problem anymore. False. The CDC estimates that over seven million people aged 15 to 49 contracted the disease in 2020, and the number of cases goes up every year.
  • Syphilis will go away even if you don’t treat it. This is a very dangerous myth. Although the sores will disappear, that doesn’t mean the infection is gone. Left untreated, it can cause deafness, blindness, paralysis, brain damage, and eventually death.
  • It’s easy to undo any damage done by syphilis, so it doesn’t matter how long you take to seek treatment. Although it’s possible to cure syphilis, those cures cannot undo any damage the infection has already done to your body. It’s vital to seek treatment as soon as you know you have the infection.
  • If you have syphilis, you’ll definitely know it. Maybe not. Syphilis sores can hide in unexpected places, such as between skin folds, under the foreskin of the penis, and even inside your anus or mouth. Plus, the sores are painless, so you may never know you have them.
  • Only promiscuous people catch syphilis. Wrong again. One way many people catch syphilis is by having sex with a new partner who hasn’t been tested for STDs. All it takes is sleeping with an infected person once to contract the disease.
  • Syphilis only spreads through “regular” sex. If you stick to oral or anal sex, you’re safe. This simply isn’t true. Any type of sexual contact can expose you to the syphilis bacteria. To protect yourself, always have safe sex and practice good condom usage (or use a dental dam if you engage in oral sex).

Testing for Syphilis

To check for syphilis, your doctor will want to perform a blood test. Doctors can also diagnose syphilis by taking fluid from your spine with a lumbar puncture. If you have open sores, your doctor can collect fluid from them for testing.

Treatment and Prevention

If you test positive for the infection, your doctor will want to start you on penicillin for syphilis right away. Rather than having you take antibiotics orally, your doctor will give you a single injection of long-acting penicillin. If the infection has progressed to the latent stage or you’re unsure how long you’ve had it, you may need separate injections over the course of three weeks.

If you’re allergic to penicillin, you still have options. Your doctor may prescribe you tetracycline (500 milligrams four times a day for 14 days) or doxycycline (100 milligrams twice a day for 14 days). Both drugs are just as effective as penicillin for knocking out syphilis.

Avoid alcohol while undergoing treatment for syphilis, as it hinders your body from absorbing the antibiotics it needs. If you imbibe, you could still have syphilis even after finishing a full course of antibiotics.

Avoid acidic foods and dairy products while using antibiotics as well. As with alcohol, these foods can interfere with the absorption of your medication.

You should also limit the time you spend in direct sunlight. Antibiotics can make you more sensitive to light, which means you could end up with a nasty sunburn. Wear sunblock if you need to go outdoors.

Remember that even if you’ve treated syphilis once, it’s possible to catch it again. One of the best ways to minimize the risk factors is to use condoms whenever you have sex. You should only consider skipping the condom if you’re certain both you and your partner have no STDs.

It’s also wise to limit the number of sex partners you have. Every person you have sex with increases your risk of contracting syphilis. And if you have sex with strangers, that risk goes up even more. Unfortunately, it’s easy for strangers to lie to you about their STD status.

Avoid using illicit drugs or drinking too much alcohol at parties, too. Those who indulge are at a higher risk of making poor decisions, such as sleeping with someone without a condom.

Order Syphilis Testing Now

Now that you’ve learned all about syphilis, do you suspect you might have this STD? Maybe you’ve noticed a strange sore or just haven’t felt quite like yourself lately. 

If you’re concerned, order a convenient syphilis test from Rapid STD Testing today. You can get tested at one of more than 2,500 labs and get your results in just a couple of days. Plus, nobody will know those results except for you. If you’d like to find a local lab or want to know more about our tests, reach out to us at (866) 872-1888.


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By: RSC Editorial Team
October 4, 2023

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