What Is Syphilis?

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Story at-a-glance -

  • The disease is divided into four stages: primary, secondary, latent and tertiary
  • Small and painless syphilis sores, called chancres, are the most common symptom of this STD

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by a bacteria called Treponema pallidum, which enters the body through minor cuts or abrasions in the skin or via mucous membranes.1 Symptoms can manifest in the vagina, anus, penis or scrotum, and sometimes on the lips and mouth. The disease is divided into four stages: primary, secondary, latent and tertiary.2,3,4

Initial symptoms can show up 21 days after the patient gets the infection, although some indicators can manifest later.5 Small and painless syphilis sores, called chancres, are the most common symptom of this STD. These sores can spread the syphilis infection to other people, and are usually found on or around the external genitals, in the vagina, around the anus, in the rectum or in or around the mouth.6 Some of the other signs of syphilis include:7,8

Swollen glands in the neck, groin or armpits

A syphilis rash that can typically appears on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet

Occasional patchy hair loss

Small skin growths that look like genital warts

White patches in the mouth

Flu-like symptoms

The thing is, most syphilis patients don’t notice the sores and feel fine, so they might not know they’re already infected.

How Is Syphilis Transmitted?

Syphilis is transmitted during vaginal, anal or oral sex through direct contact with a chancre. In some cases, syphilis can be acquired after sharing sex toys, via a blood transfusion or through direct unprotected contact with an active lesion (usually during kissing).

People often spread syphilis without knowing that they have the infection, since some indicators can be mild and go unnoticed. Syphilis can be passed before symptoms are noticeable or after they've disappeared.9,10,11

Who Can Get Syphilis?

Syphilis infections occur worldwide, and are typically more common in urban areas. As noted by The New York Times, young adults aged 15 to 25 years old are the highest-risk population. Factors that can influence a person's syphilis risk include:12,13

  • Engaging in unprotected sex
  • Having sex with multiple partners
  • Having sex with other men (if the patient is a man)
  • Being infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

Babies may be diagnosed with a disease called congenital syphilis, which can lead to life-threatening health problems. This occurs when a pregnant women passes the syphilis infection to her child during pregnancy or labor and delivery. The bacteria responsible for this type of syphilis is known to enter the infant’s blood system through the placenta.14,15

MORE ABOUT SYPHILIS

Syphilis: Introduction

What Is Syphilis?

Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Congenital Syphilis

Syphilis Stages

Syphilis Causes

Syphilis Transmission

Syphilis Symptoms

Syphilis Treatment

Syphilis Testing

Syphilis Prevention

Syphilis FAQ

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