What is syphilis?
Syphilis is classified as a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and is typically passed from one person to another via sexual activity. Contrary to popular belief, though, you can get syphilis non-sexually.
Syphilis is classified as a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and is typically passed from one person to another via sexual activity. Contrary to popular belief, though, you can get syphilis non-sexually. In fact, there are a few ways you can contract this infection even if you don’t engage in any kind of sex.
This STI is diagnosed when a certain kind of bacteria, treponema pallidum, proliferates on male or female sex organs. Generally speaking, it’s passed on by skin-on-skin contact. There are different stages of syphilis, and it is most contagious during the stage where sores or rashes are found on the skin.
Once you contract syphilis, you might not know you have it for a few days or even a few months. The early symptoms of syphilis are subtle, but if you’re able to catch this infection early on, you have a much better chance of treating it. If it is left untreated for an extended period of time, you could experience brain damage, heart disease, or even death.
Who can get syphilis?
If you’re sexually active, then you’re at risk of encountering syphilis. Your chances of contracting this STI increase, though, if you:
- Are a man who has sex with men
- Are a woman who has sex with men who also have sex with men
- Are a pregnant woman or a women in her childbearing years (roughly 15–49)
- Are a sexual partner of a pregnant woman
- Are a heterosexual man or woman who has more than one sexual partner or takes drugs via injection
- Are traveling to or from a country where syphilis is common
- Are a member of the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community
- Are a sex worker
- Are already diagnosed with an STI, like HIV, chlamydia, or gonorrhea
Symptoms of syphilis
Syphilis has three stages. The first two stages are infectious, but the third is not.
- Stage one symptoms show up during the first 4–12 weeks, but you may not realize you have syphilis. Initial signs of this very contagious stage include sores on your genitals, anus, or mouth.
- If the first stage goes untreated, stage two symptoms occur after two to four months and can last for a few years. This stage is also extremely transmissible and can include a red rash, swollen lymph nodes, loss of hair, pain in your joints, and flu symptoms.
- If the second stage goes untreated, stage three symptoms may set in 10–30 years later. You may experience complications involving a number of organs, including your heart and brain. Complications at this stage can be severe
Even in the final stage of syphilis, though, your condition remains treatable.
Different ways to get syphilis
Syphilis is an extremely common infection; it’s estimated that more than 10 million cases occur each year. While many cases happen as a result of sexual activity, there are a few other ways that syphilis can also be spread.
The likelihood of syphilis transmission increases or decreases depending on how frequently you have sex, how many sexual partners you have, what kind of sexual contact you have, what stage of syphilis your partner has, the use of condoms, and more.
Congenital transmission of syphilis refers to syphilis transmission during or after pregnancy – i.e., when a pregnant woman has this STI and gives it to her child. The infection can be passed on before the baby is born or during birth. Studies show that almost all pregnant women with untreated syphilis experience serious consequences; half experience early labor, neonatal death, or stillbirth, and half experience successful births but pass on congenital syphilis.
Blood and organ transmission
Passing on syphilis via blood transfusions used to be very common but is now rare thanks to blood supply screening and refrigeration of blood products. STI transmission is also possible, though, if an organ donor has syphilis and you are the recipient. You can still have a successful organ transplant with an infected organ, but you may contract syphilis as a result.
Other kinds of transmission
Before healthcare providers wore gloves as a standard practice, it was common for syphilis sores to appear on their fingers and noses. It’s also possible for syphilis to be passed on through biting, whether sexual or non-sexual. Another way that this STI can be transmitted is if an infected person chews food for an infant and passes it straight from their own mouth into the baby’s mouth.
If you think you have this STI, you should get tested right away because:
- Syphilis will not go away without treatment.
- The only way to confirm that you have syphilis is to be tested.
- The medications needed to treat syphilis are not available over the counter; you must have a prescription from a healthcare provider.
- The sooner you seek treatment, the less likely you are to pass syphilis along to others.
Syphilis testing is straightforward. Your healthcare provider may perform a blood test, and if you have sores, they will take a sample of fluid using a cotton swab.
There are a few ways that syphilis is typically treated:
- Antibiotics injected into your backside. Depending on how long you’ve had syphilis, you may only need one dose, or you may need three doses administered a week apart from each other.
- A series of oral antibiotics. Depending on how long you’ve had syphilis, you may have to take these for anywhere from two to four weeks.
Reduce syphilis transmission
If you don’t have syphilis but want to reduce your risk of contracting it, consider the following tips:
- Use condoms and implement safe sex practices.
- Visit your healthcare provider for a complete sexual health check, including tests for STIs, every year.
- If you belong to a group that is more likely to get syphilis, get checked multiple times a year.
- Regularly check yourself for sores on your mouth, genitals, and anus.
- Request a sexual health check if you are pregnant or planning on getting pregnant soon.
If you think you have syphilis, reach out to your healthcare provider immediately to seek diagnosis and treatment. Although it may be difficult, you should also tell your sexual partner(s) so that they can get tested and help prevent the spread of syphilis.
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Medically Reviewed on 5/25/2022
Better Health Channel: “Syphilis.”
National Health Service: “Syphilis.”
Sex Health: “Syphilis transmission: a review of the current evidence.”