Syphilis 101: Definition, Causes, Symptoms & Treatment


Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection that develops in stages, which range depending on severity. Diagnosing and treating syphilis early is key to preventing complications.

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a bacteria called Treponema pallidum. The disease usually starts as a painless sore––typically on the genitals or mouth––but can develop into dangerous symptoms if not treated promptly. You can contract syphilis from an infected person through contact with any of these sores during oral, vaginal, or anal sex. 

Preventing syphilis transmission

Syphilis spreads through contact with close skin-to-skin contact with an infected person, which allows bacteria to enter the body through minor cuts on the body. Like any STI, using a barrier method of contraception, such as condoms, greatly reduces the risk of getting syphilis. Although less common, syphilis can also spread through other acts such as kissing, as infected people may have sores on the mouth. The most reliable way to prevent syphilis––and other types of sexually transmitted diseases––is to get tested regularly and encourage your partner to do so as well. 

Disease progression and symptoms

Syphilis commonly develops in the following stages:

  1. Syphilis usually begins as a small sore at the spot where the bacteria entered your body. While most people infected with syphilis develop only one sore, some people can develop several.
  2. After the sore starts to heal, you may experience a rash that can grow to cover your entire body. This rash is usually not itchy and may be accompanied by wart-like sores in your mouth or genital area. 
  3. If you aren’t treated for syphilis, the disease moves to the hidden (latent) stage, when you have no symptoms. This does not mean that the infection has resolved. Left untreated, the disease may progress to the late stage, which can cause serious and life-threatening symptoms. 
  4. In the late stage, the disease may damage vital organs such as the brain, liver, and heart. These problems may occur many years after contracting the disease. 

It is important to note that symptoms don’t always occur in the same order and stages of the disease may overlap. Additionally, syphilis can remain asymptomatic for months or even years after exposure. Left untreated, syphilis can progress to serious symptoms. If you suspect you may have been exposed to syphilis, it is crucial that you get tested immediately to prevent any complications and limit further transmission. 

What do I do if I think I have syphilis? 

Early diagnosis and treatment is crucial to ensure your symptoms don’t worsen. If you think you may have syphilis, you should reach out to a healthcare professional as soon as possible. You can book a teleconsultation with an Ease physician at any time––we offer judgment-free, discreet care and treatment for your sexual health.  You can also consider booking an STI test with us and get checked for syphilis. Our STI tests can be taken in the comfort of your home or you can walk into one of our partner clinics.

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