Syphilis is caused by bacteria that are passed from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore. Sores occur mainly on the external genitals, vagina, anus or in the rectum. Sores also can occur on the lips and in the mouth. Transmission of the organism occurs during vaginal, anal or oral sex. The rate of syphilis infection in men has been increasing steadily in the past decade.
The symptoms of syphilis occur in three phases. The first stage is usually marked by the appearance of a single sore (called a chancre). The time between infection and the appearance of the chancre can range from 10 to 90 days (the average is 21 days). The chancre is usually a small, round, painless sore that lasts three to six weeks, and heals without treatment. If the syphilis bacteria are not killed, however, the infection progresses to the secondary stage.
In the secondary stage a rash appears. It usually appears as rough, red, or reddish-brown spots on the palms of the hands and the bottoms of the feet. However, rashes with a different appearance may occur on other parts of the body, sometimes resembling rashes caused by other diseases. In addition to rashes, symptoms of secondary syphilis may include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches and fatigue.
Symptoms usually go away on their own. Then syphilis goes into a latent phase in which the person has no symptoms at all. But after 10 to 20 years, late-stage symptoms can occur, which are serious and potentially lethal. The disease may damage internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. Signs and symptoms of the late stage of syphilis include difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness and dementia. This damage may be serious enough to cause death.
Syphilis is easy to cure in its early stages. A single injection of an antibiotic will cure a person who has had syphilis for less than a year. Additional doses are needed to treat someone who has had syphilis for longer than a year.
Because effective treatment is available, it is important that you get screened for syphilis on an ongoing basis if your sexual behavior puts you at risk for STDs. Even if you get treated, you’ll need to abstain from sex until the syphilis sores are completely healed. As with any STD, if you have syphilis you should tell your sexual partners so that they also can be tested and receive treatment if necessary.