Syphilis is a common bacterial infection that can have serious medical consequences if not detected and treated early. Read on to learn more about risk factors, complications, testing and treatment options.

Getting tested for syphilis can be a one- or two-step process, depending if the first test is negative or positive. The primary screening for syphilis is a Rapid Plasma Reagin (RPR) blood test. If this test is positive, another test is run after for the presence of Treponema pallidum, the bacteria that causes the infection. A positive test will confirm a syphilis diagnosis.1

If you are at risk for syphilis or have been exposed by unprotected sex with a positive partner, getting treatment best possible option for your health. Primary (first stage) syphilis may present with a single sore, so be aware and schedule a test as soon as possible to avoid more complications in the future.2

Syphilis Treatment

When a patient’s tests reveal a syphilis diagnosis, the most common treatment is a shot of penicillin. The duration of the treatment depends on the stage at which the disease is caught, be it primary, secondary or latent or late stage syphilis.

An inability to treat can lead to neurosyphilis (a Treponema pallidum infection of the nervous system). Contracting syphilis while pregnant can cause the fetus to die in utero or to be born with life-threatening complications due to congenital syphilis. Every woman planning to get pregnant or in her first trimester should get screened and treated if appropriate.2

Syphilis Overview

Syphilis is a common sexually transmitted disease currently seeing numbers on the rise, according the CDC. With just about 20,000 cases reported to the CDC in 2014, syphilis is reported less in the general population in relation to other STIs like chlamydia (1.4 million+) and gonorrhea (350,000)+3 but the complications of an undiagnosed or untreated case are often more severe. In the cases of late stage and latent syphilis, those infected can be carriers of the disease for decades without showing any symptoms, making it more difficult to get treatment.

The threat of neurosyphilis, or an invasion of the infection into the nervous system is a serious condition with symptoms including numbness, confusion, memory loss or other mental problems.2 Ocular syphilis is a new strain that is causing concern, as it can lead to vision problems or even permanent blindness. In late 2015 and early 2016, a medical release was sent out by the CDC warning against new cases of the syphilis complication.4 The symptoms and areas of infection within the reaches of the disease continues to change, so getting screened often is important for maintaining overall sexual health.

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Syphilis Symptoms

With latent and late stage (also known as tertiary) syphilis, symptoms can take years or even decades to present. If you are at risk, periodic or yearly screenings are recommended. Pregnant women with any risk factors should get screened for the infection as early as possible.

Primary Syphilis Symptoms

  • No symptoms
  • A single sore or ulcer, often painless, in the genital area
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the area local to the sore or ulcer

Secondary Syphilis
In most cases, there are few symptoms present indicating the primary stage of syphilis. The secondary stage signifies the increase of more bacteria in the body.

  • Skin rash covering extremities (hands, soles of feet)
  • Mucous patch sores around the genitals or mouth
  • Warts in the genital area
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Lethargy and loss of appetite
  • Changes in vision
  • Hair loss
  • Fever

Call a physician as soon as possible if you experience persistent high or low grade fever, intermittent bleeding or any other possible risk factors for syphilis or any emergent symptoms that you feel concerned about.

If you feel any acute intermittent or persistent pelvic pain, call 911 immediately or go the closest emergency room or urgent care facility. Call 911 if any symptoms worsen and are in danger of becoming life-threatening.

1 2015 Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines – Syphilis
2 Syphilis – CDC Fact Sheet
3 2014 CDC STD Surveillance Report
4 Clinical Advisory: Ocular Syphilis in the United States