What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a highly contagious bacterial disease that creates sores and rashes on the body. Though most commonly spread through unprotected sexual contact, it can also be transmitted to other people through direct contact with infected blood. It is not uncommon for a person to be unaware of the infection and unintentionally spread it to their partner. Congenital syphilis can be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy and labor, and it can lead to serious health problems or death for the child.

Originating in France, syphilis used to be a widespread threat to public health worldwide as recently as the 1940s, but it has since become relatively rare in the United States. Improved medical treatments and increased awareness of STDs has helped to lower the numbers. Now it is curable and easily treated as long as it is noticed soon enough.

What are the Symptoms of Syphilis?

The disease goes through different stages of development, and symptoms vary by stage. Depending on how far along the STD has progressed, patients might experience:

  • Painless sores or ulcers on the mouth or genitals
  • Wart-like growths
  • Itching
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Inflammation of the rectal lining
  • Weight loss
  • Rashes across the body
  • Damage to internal organs
  • Changes or damage to vision

Untreated syphilis that has reached the final stage can lead to brain damage, blindness, heart problems, paralysis, deafness, impotence, arthritis, dementia, and even death.

How is Syphilis Treated?

Treatment for syphilis involves the administration of penicillin. If the infection is caught early enough, one dose is often sufficient to clear it up. Patients with an allergy to penicillin can be given doxycycline, tetracycline, and other antibiotics instead. Anyone who is being treated must stop all sexual activity, and it is recommended that their sexual partners be tested and treated as well if it is determined that they are also infected.

Last Reviewed:
September 14, 2016
Last Updated:
August 22, 2017