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STI fact sheet: Syphilis

Syphilis is an STI caused by bacterium that can cause long term complications and/ or death if not treated well and in time. It is transmitted from person to person through direct contact with syphilis sores found on genital area, anus or rectum.  The sores can also appear on the lips and in the mouth. It is mainly transmitted through sexual contact. Pregnant women can pass this disease to their unborn children.

The average time before the symptoms are seen range between 10 to 90 days. There are three stages of symptoms in adults:

  • Primary stage - it is characterized by the appearance of single sore or multiple isolated sores. It is usually round, firm and painless and can go unnoticed for a long time. It goes one for a maximum of six weeks and heals regardless of whether it is treated or not. If untreated, the infection progresses to the next stage.
  • Secondary stage - it is characterized by skin rashes and sores in the mouth, vagina or anus. It is referred to as mucous membrane lesions. The rashes appear first in a few areas and spreads after the primary sores have healed. They can appear on the palms or feet. Large, raised, gray or white lesions may occur in warm or most areas of the body like the mouth and anus. Other symptoms associated with this stage include fevers, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, muscle aches and fatigue.
  • Late and latent stages - this usually appears between ten and thirty years after infection. At this time, the primary and secondary symptoms disappear which may give the illusion of full healing.  However, complications at this stage include difficulty in muscle movement coordination, numbness, paralysis, gradual blindness, and dementia.

Babies born with syphilis have many health problems; premature birth, low birth weight, or still births. If they survive, they may develop deafness, cataracts or seizures. 

Syphilis is easy to cure with prescription antibiotics which must be taken as directed. Treatment cannot repair the damage caused by the bacteria. Follow up testing is recommended to ensure success. However, there is a possibility of reinfection if one has sexual contact with an infected person. Like all STIs, this can be prevented through having one sexual partner and using condoms during sex.