Understanding syphilis and its symptoms

Syphilis is a highly contagious disease that is spread mainly by sexual activity, including anal and oral sex. Sometimes the disease is passed to another person through close bodily contact or prolonged kissing due to the presence of sores. Syphilis symptoms and signs develop in three stages: primary syphilis, secondary syphilis and tertiary syphilis.

Stages of syphilis development

It is important to note that the stages of syphilis development may overlap, and symptoms of the disease don't always occur in the same order.

Stage 1: Primary (early) syphilis

People with primary or early syphilis develop one or more sores usually at the spot where the bacteria entered the body. The sores are often small, painless ulcers. Many people actually don’t notice these small sore(s), called a chancre (SHANG-kur).

The chancre typically occurs on the genitals, or in or around the mouth about three weeks (10-90 days) after exposure. It heals without a scar shortly after (within six weeks) even without treatment.

Stage 2: Secondary stage syphilis

After a few weeks of the original chancre healing, you may begin to experience a rush that begins on your trunk, but eventually covers the whole body, including your hands, palms and the soles of your feet. The rush is not itchy, but it is usually accompanied by wart-like sores in the genital area and mouth.

Some people may also experience fever, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes and sore throat. These syphilis symptoms may repeatedly come and go for as long as a year, or disappear completely within a few weeks. If you aren't treated for syphilis, the disease moves from the secondary to the latent (hidden) state, when the infection lies dormant (inactive) without causing symptoms.

Latent (hidden) syphilis

The latent state can last for years. Syphilis signs and symptoms may never return, or the disease may progress to the third stage called tertiary syphilis.

Stage 3: Tertiary (late) syphilis

About 15% to 30% of people who don’t get treatment for syphilis infection develop complications known as tertiary syphilis. At this stage syphilis can be dangerous enough to cause death. The disease may damage your brain, blood vessels, heart, liver, joints and bones in this late stage.

When to see a doctor

See your doctor for sexual health screening and treatment as soon as possible if you experience a sore, rash or any unusual discharge—particularly if it occurs in the groin area and or you are pregnant. Pregnant women with syphilis can spread it to their babies.

Syphilis and symptoms in children is called congenital syphilis, and it can cause abnormalities or even death to the child if not treated.

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