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What is syphilis? — Syphilis is an infection that you can catch during sex. Infections that you can catch during sex are called "sexually transmitted infections." It is also possible for a pregnant woman to give syphilis to her baby.
Syphilis has different stages. The stages (in the order that they usually happen) are called:
Primary syphilis
Secondary syphilis
Latent syphilis
Late-stage syphilis (also called tertiary syphilis)
In some cases, the infection moves to the brain, ears, or eyes. This can happen in any of the stages of syphilis.
What are the symptoms of primary syphilis? — Primary syphilis is the first stage of infection. Symptoms start 2 to 3 weeks after the person becomes infected. At that time, the person usually gets a raised red bump on the spot where the infection first entered the body. This bump is usually painless. Eventually it turns into a small sore (or ulcer) with a raised edge.
The sores caused by syphilis usually form on the penis or around the vagina or anus. But they can also form in places that are hard to see, such as the back of the throat or inside the vagina or rectum.
Sores caused by primary syphilis usually heal on their own within a few weeks. Since they don't hurt, many people don't get treatment for them.
What are the symptoms of secondary syphilis? — Secondary syphilis is the second stage of infection. It starts weeks or a few months after primary syphilis and happens in about 25 percent of people who don't get treatment for their primary syphilis.
Symptoms of secondary syphilis include:
A widespread rash
Large, raised, gray or white patches on warm, moist areas of the body (such as the mouth and genitals)
Sore throat, muscle aches, and other flu-like symptoms
Weight loss
Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpit, and groin area (lymph nodes are bean-shaped organs scattered throughout the body that store infection-fighting cells)
What are the symptoms of latent syphilis? — Latent syphilis actually causes no symptoms. People who have this form can have the infection for years without knowing it.
What are the symptoms of late-stage syphilis? — Late-stage syphilis (also called tertiary syphilis) can cause serious damage to the heart, skin, brain, and other organs.
What is neurosyphilis? — "Neurosyphilis" is the term for a syphilis infection that has moved into the brain, the spinal cord, or the tissues that surround both. Neurosyphilis can happen during any of the stages of syphilis. Symptoms of it include:
Nausea and vomiting
Stiff neck
Vision loss or trouble seeing clearly
If the doctor suspects you have neurosyphilis, you might need a test called a "lumbar puncture," sometimes called a "spinal tap." For this test, the doctor takes a small sample of fluid from the space around the spinal cord. Then the fluid is tested for the bacteria that cause syphilis.
Some people also have vision problems if syphilis involves the eyes. This can happen in anyone with syphilis, but may be more common in people who also have HIV infection.
Is there a test for syphilis? — Yes. Your doctor can order blood tests to find out if you have syphilis.
Should I see a doctor or nurse? — You should see a doctor or nurse if you have symptoms of syphilis, or if any of your sexual partners have been diagnosed with syphilis. Doctors also recommend that people who are at high risk for syphilis get tested regularly.
If you see a doctor or nurse to be checked for syphilis, he or she might want to test you for other sexually transmitted infections, too. That's because people who get one type of sexually transmitted infection are often at risk for other types.
Even if you have no symptoms, it's still possible that you could be infected. If you are infected, there are treatments to cure syphilis.
How is syphilis treated? — Syphilis is usually treated with an antibiotic called penicillin. The amount of time a person must take penicillin depends on what stage of infection they are in. Most people can get a penicillin shot, but some people need to get the medicine through a thin tube that goes into a vein, called an "IV." People who are allergic to penicillin need to take a different antibiotic.
After finishing treatment, most people need follow-up testing to make sure they are cured. Some people need to get multiple blood tests over a few years.
Can syphilis be prevented? — You can reduce your chances of getting syphilis by:
Using a latex condom every time you have sex
Avoiding sex when you or your partner has any symptoms that could be caused by an infection
Not having sex
All topics are updated as new evidence becomes available and our peer review process is complete.
This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Mar 30, 2020.
Topic 17045 Version 7.0
Release: 28.2.2 - C28.105
© 2020 UpToDate, Inc. and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.

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