Syphilis

What is it?

Syphilis is another sexually transmitted infection caused by bacteria. If you do have it, it can affect your entire body. If left untreated, syphilis can cause serious complications, and syphilis in pregnancy can result in complications for the newborn (globally it is responsible for 1 in 4 stillbirths and 14% of newborn deaths).

How do I get it?

Syphilis can be spread through unprotected vaginal, anal, and oral sex. It can be passed on whether the infected person has symptoms or not, but there is a higher chance of transmission if you come into contact with a sore. It can also be spread through kissing if there is a sore in your mouth.

What should I be looking for?

There are three stages to the infection. In its first stage (a week to three months after exposure) syphilis causes sores to appear around the vagina, penis, and anus, and inside the mouth. The sores may not be painful and may come and go on their own. Some people who have syphilis don’t get sores, or they don’t see them because they’re inside the vagina or anus.

These symptoms will then go away, and then a couple of months later, the person will experience “flu”-like symptoms, fever, swollen lymph nodes and a rash (second stage). Some people never have further symptoms. People who get further symptoms may have to wait years, even decades, for them to show up. This is known as late-stage syphilis. By now the bacteria have caused significant damage throughout the body. In a third of people with late-stage syphilis, one or more of the following symptoms may show up: blindness, deafness, skin ulcers, heart disease, liver damage, paralysis, and dementia. For many people, this stage ends in death.

How do I get tested?

Testing is usually done through a blood test at your health care provider’s office or a clinic.

Can I get rid of it?

Yes. Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics, although the damage syphilis does to the body in the later stages can’t be reversed. It’s more difficult to get rid of than chlamydia and gonorrhea, and the antibiotic is usually given by injection into your bum muscle.