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Syphilis Information

Syphilis Communicable Disease Facts


Throughout history, syphilis has caused epidemics among almost every culture. Untreated syphilis can cause cardiovascular, neurological, and skeletal damage. Fortunately, syphilis incidence has reached historic lows both nationally and in Saint Louis County. During 2001, fewer cases of syphilis were reported nationally and locally than in any other year for which records exist.

In 1999, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) launched a national effort to eliminate syphilis from the United States by the year 2005. The timing is important. Syphilis can easily be treated with penicillin and it is geographically focused. In 1998, over three-fourths of nation's counties reported no syphilis cases. About half of syphilis cases occur in large metropolitan areas. Persons with syphilis are more likely to transmit and acquire HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

What is syphilis (siff-uh-liss)?

Syphilis is a bacterial infection caused by treponema pallidum.

How is syphilis spread?

Syphilis is passed through contact with the sores of a person who has syphilis. These sores can be on their penis, vagina, anus, skin, or inside the cervix and mouth. Most syphilis is passed during oral, vaginal, or anal sexual contact, though it can be passed through breaks in the skin and infected females can pass it on to their babies if they become pregnant.

What are symptoms of syphilis?

Syphilis has been named the "great imitator" because many of the symptoms may look like other diseases. It can be difficult to know if someone is infected with syphilis because the person may not see any symptoms at all. There are four stages of syphilis with various symptoms.

  1. Primary. The first sign of syphilis is a chancre ("shan-ker"). A chancre is an ulcer that forms where a person was exposed. Many people do not notice chancres because they are painless and often hidden inside the mouth, cervix, or anus. The chancre can range in size and appear to be a red "bump" on the skin if it is visible. The chancre can appear within 10 days to three months after exposure. The chancre will go away within a few weeks, but the person can still spread the disease after the chancre goes away.
  2. Secondary. There are many different symptoms of secondary syphilis. These may include the following:
    • Skin rash (may cover the whole body or just on a few areas of the body)
    • Mild fever
    • Fatigue
    • Headache
    • Sore throat
    • Patchy hair loss
  3. Latent. This stage can last for a long time. There are no symptoms of this stage and persons are still infected with syphilis. However, they can not spread the disease to others during this stage.
  4. Late. This stage may occur if a person has been infected for a very long time. At this stage, a person who has not been treated may have damage to their heart, eyes, liver, brain, bones, and joints. People can also become mentally ill, go blind, get heart disease and even die.

How serious is syphilis?

Syphilis is a very serious disease. Left untreated, a person can die. Syphilis during pregnancy is also serious. An unborn child who is exposed to syphilis by the mother could die or be permanently damaged. Syphilis can cause mental illness, blindness and other neurological problems.

How is syphilis diagnosed?

Syphilis is diagnosed by an examination of the fluid from the sores, blood tests, and/or examination of spinal fluid.

Is syphilis curable/treatable?

Syphilis is both curable and treatable. Usually, penicillin is used to treat syphilis. Other antibiotics may be used if a person is allergic to penicillin. The amount and length of treatment depends on how long a person has been infected with syphilis.

Can you become immune to syphilis?

No. Getting treated once for syphilis does not mean that you cannot become infected again if you are exposed to the disease.

Where can I learn more information about syphilis?

You can click on our Resource link for further information. The following resources can be contacted for further information relating to syphilis. National STD and AIDS hotlines at 1-800-342-2437 or 1-800-227-8922. These hotlines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For more information you may use the following links: