November 29, 2022
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What is syphilis?

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Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. Although a syphilis infection does not always cause detectable symptoms, it can cause serious health problems if left untreated. That is why getting tested regularly for syphilis and other STIs is recommended. Homed-IQ’s STI tests allow you to perform STI checks in the privacy of your own home. The STI Test Complete checks for syphilis, along with four other common STIs. This test can be performed using a urine test and finger prick for men, and a vaginal swab and finger prick for women.

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a STI caused by the Treponema pallidum bacteria. Syphilis infections develop in stages, each with their own signs and symptoms. If left untreated, syphilis can infect many different organ systems and in rare cases, cause death. Luckily, syphilis can be easily treated with antibiotics and can be detected with a blood test.

How is syphilis transmitted?

Syphilis is usually spread through contact with an infected individual’s sore(s) during sexual activity or skin-to-skin touching. The bacteria usually enters the body when small cuts or abrasions in the genitals, mouth, or anus come into contact with the sores. It can also be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy and childbirth. Syphilis is highly contagious during its primary and secondary stages of infection, and sometimes is also contagious the early latent period (CDC, 2022).

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

Syphilis has four stages, each with its own symptoms:

Primary syphilis infection

  • One or more sores on genitals, anus or mouth. 

A primary syphilis infection usually causes a sore known as a chancre in the location where the bacteria entered the body. Sores are usually firm, round, painless, and last 3-6 weeks. Sores will heal regardless of treatment and do not mean the infection is gone.

Secondary syphilis infection

  • Non-itchy rash on arms, legs, palms of hands, feet, or trunk 
  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Sore muscles
  • Hair loss
  • Swollen glands
  • Weight loss

Like a primary infection, the symptoms of a secondary syphilis infection can go away even without treatment. This does not mean you are healed, but rather the infection has moved to the latent stage.

Latent syphilis infection

The latent stage of syphilis is a period when there are no signs or symptoms. Without treatment, syphilis can exist in your body for years in this phase.

Tertiary syphilis infection

  • Damage to heart, blood vessels, or brain

Most people with untreated syphilis do not develop tertiary syphilis. Tertiary syphilis takes years or decades to develop after an initial infection. 

Can you have syphilis without symptoms?

Yes, some people have no symptoms during a primary or secondary syphilis infection, or they may attribute their symptoms to other illnesses. As the lesions caused by syphilis are often painless, they can go unnoticed.

Testing for Syphilis 

Syphilis is diagnosed with a blood test. Homed-IQ’s STI Test Complete allows you to perform a syphilis test from home, which includes an analysis by a certified laboratory and printable laboratory report. This test checks for other common STIs such as HIV, trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. You can also test yourself for syphilis with our STI Test Comprehensive, which additionally tests for Hepatitis B as well as Herpes 1 and 2.

When should you take a syphilis test?

It’s important to get tested if you have symptoms of syphilis or your sexual partner was recently diagnosed with the infection. If you are experiencing symptoms, it is possible to do a home test a few weeks after exposure. However, it can take up to twelve weeks for syphilis to be conclusively detected on a blood test.

Read more about testing for STIs on our blog:

What is the window period of syphilis?

The window period is the length of time between being infected and when the infection will show up on a test. The window period of syphilis is approximately ten to ninety days, with an average of three weeks. Contagiousness lasts one to two years from the moment of infection (RIVM, 2020).

What causes syphilis?

Syphilis is caused by the transmission of bacteria during sexual contact. Infection can occur when the mucous membranes of the genitals, mouth or anus come into contact with sores or bumps caused by syphilis on an infected person. Syphilis can also be transmitted through blood transfusions or from mother to child during pregnancy or birth.

How dangerous is syphilis?

Syphilis is not dangerous in its early stages and is easily treated with antibiotics. However, without treatment it can cause serious damage to the body. With regular STI screening and engagement in follow-up care, the severe health effects of syphilis can be prevented.

Can you die from syphilis?

In many countries it is virtually impossible for people to die from syphilis. This is because STI testing allows it to be detected quickly and because treatment is widely available. Death from syphilis only occurs if an individual has an untreated infection for years or decades.

What are the chances that you will get syphilis?

Syphilis is not as common as STIs like chlamydia or HPV, but its incidence has increased in Western Europe in recent years. In Europe, men are much more likely to have syphilis than women- in 2019, syphilis rates in men were nine times higher than in women. The majority of reported syphilis infections occur in men who have sex with men (ECDC, 2022). 

Can women get syphilis?

Women can also get syphilis, but it is much less common than in men. Anyone who engages in sexual activity is able to get syphilis, which is why regular STI screening and practicing safe sex is important.

How long does syphilis stay in your body?

Without treatment, syphilis will stay in your body indefinitely. After the first and second stages of infection, it can go into a dormant or latent state, a period in which the infection causes no symptoms but remains in your body. Syphilis is easily and quickly treatable with antibiotics, but will not go away on its own.

Can syphilis heal on its own?

No- without treatment, syphilis will remain in the body, even without causing any symptoms. Luckily, treatment is simple and fast-acting. Syphilis is treated with an antibiotic injection of drug benzathine penicillin G. While primary, secondary, or early latent infections can be treated with one injection, longer-standing infections may require more than one dose.

Most syphilis infections can be treated at the GP. However, you may be referred to a specialist if the infection has been present for a longer period of time and requires additional treatment doses. 

About the author

Lauren Dobischok

Lauren is a health scientist and science communicator living in the Netherlands. With a background in epidemiology, her goal is to create accurate scientific content that is easy to understand and empowers people to make informed decisions. Her favourite topics to discuss are public health, infectious diseases, and dispelling myths and misconceptions about health topics with research. Coming from Canada, Lauren prefers to spend her free time learning Dutch and exploring the interesting sights this small country has to offer!