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What Is Syphilis?

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  • 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 an STD caused by the Treponema pallidum bacterium, which enters the body through minor cuts or abrasions in the skin or your 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 you are infected, although some indicators can develop later. Small and painless syphilis sores, called chancres, are the most common symptoms of this STD. Chancres can spread the syphilis infection to other people, and usually develop on or around your external genitals, in the vagina, around the anus, in the rectum or in or around the mouth.5 Some of the other signs of syphilis that you may notice include:6,7

  • Swollen glands in the neck, groin or armpits
  • A syphilis rash on the palms of your hands, soles of the feet or other areas of the body
  • Occasional patchy hair loss
  • Small skin growths that look like genital warts
  • White patches in the mouth
  • Flu-like symptoms

There are instances when people who have already been infected with syphilis do not notice the sores and feel fine, so they may be unaware that they have been 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 transfusion8 or exposure to an active lesion (usually during kissing).9

People may spread syphilis without knowing that they have the infection, since some indicators can be mild and go unnoticed. Furthermore, syphilis can be passed before symptoms are noticeable or after they've disappeared.10,11,12

Who Can Get Syphilis?

Syphilis infections occur worldwide, and are typically more common in urban areas.13 Young adults aged 20 to 35 years old are the highest-risk group.14 Some of the factors that can influence a person's syphilis risk, as highlighted by the Mayo Clinic, include:15

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

Babies may be diagnosed with congenital syphilis, a disease that can lead to life-threatening health problems. This arises when a pregnant woman passes syphilis to her child during pregnancy or labor and delivery.16 The type of bacteria responsible for congenital syphilis is known to affect the infant after entering through the mother’s placenta.17


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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