Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that, if left untreated, can lead to serious health problems and increase the risk for getting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS. Syphilis also can be passed from a mother to her baby during pregnancy and cause serious complications.
A syphilis infection in its early stages can be treated with antibiotics, and can be prevented by avoiding sexual contact with someone who is infected. Unfortunately, people don't always know that they're infected, so anyone having sex (oral, anal, or vaginal) should take precautions against STDs and get screened for them regularly.
Syphilis, caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum, often doesn't cause any symptoms in its early stages. But if left untreated, it can progress to affect the entire body.
Syphilis typically has three stages, and there can be different symptoms in each.
The symptoms of the first stage of the infection, primary syphilis, usually appear 10 days to 3 months after sexual contact with an infected person. A painless red sore called a chancre can appear on the genitals in the area where the infection occurred. Enlarged lymph nodes (swollen glands) also might be present in the area. Depending on the type of sexual contact, a chancre might also develop on the mouth or in the rectal area.
Chancres are the primary way that syphilis is transmitted between people, but often are unrecognized. Even without treatment, chancres will heal after 3 to 6 weeks, but if the infection isn't treated the disease will progress to the second stage.
The secondary stage usually begins weeks to months after the chancre sore appears. Syphilis bacteria enter the blood and spread through the body, causing many different symptoms, including rash (small red spots), fever, headache, loss of appetite, weight loss, sore throat, muscle aches, joint pain, a generally ill feeling, and enlarged lymph nodes.
The rash of secondary syphilis can develop anywhere on the body, including on the palms and soles of the feet. Gray or white wart-like patches of skin called condylomata can appear on the moist areas around the mouth, anus, and vagina. These lesions are full of bacteria and very contagious.
The symptoms of secondary syphilis will eventually go away. But in this stage, syphilis can also affect the liver, kidneys, and eyes, or cause meningitis. The symptoms of secondary syphilis will eventually go away, but without treatment, the infection can advance to the third stage. This is true even if an infected person did not have symptoms of primary or secondary syphilis.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2009 The Nemours Foundation. All rights reserved.
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