Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (also called an STD or STI). If it is not treated, syphilis can lead to permanent brain, nerve, and tissue damage.
What is the cause?
The infection is caused by bacteria. It is usually passed from person to person during oral, vaginal, or anal sex. The bacteria can also get into your body through a cut or break in the skin or through blood transfusions.
If you are pregnant and have syphilis, you can pass the infection to your baby before or during birth.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms may start 10 days to 3 months after contact with an infected person. Symptoms may include:
A smooth, pale or red, painless sore at the place where the bacteria entered your body, usually near your genitals. There is usually just one sore, but there may be more than one and they can be anywhere on your body.
A pink or red, bumpy, scaly rash that does not itch and may come and go. The rash may be anywhere on your body.
Brown sores about the size of a penny on the palms of your hands and soles of your feet
Swollen and tender lumps in your neck, armpits, or groin
Fever, body aches, sore throat, headache, tiredness, and loss of appetite
Hair loss in clumps, causing patchy baldness
Gray or pink growths of soft, fleshy skin in your mouth, armpits, or groin
Babies infected with syphilis may be born early or born dead. Not all infected babies have symptoms at birth. If they do have symptoms, they may include:
Swelling of different parts of the body
Low birth weight and slow growth
Birth defects (for example, problems with the eyes or nerves)
Bone problems with pain
Yellowish skin (jaundice)
How is it diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. You will have a blood test for syphilis at your first prenatal visit. If you have sores, they may be tested for syphilis.
If you are diagnosed with syphilis, your baby will have blood tests and possibly X-rays after birth.
How is it treated?
Penicillin is the best treatment for syphilis in pregnancy. If you are allergic to penicillin, your healthcare provider may ask you to have a special procedure to stop your allergy so you can then take penicillin.
Treatment for syphilis before the 16th to 18th weeks of pregnancy usually keeps babies from getting syphilis. Treatment later than this in your pregnancy may lessen your baby’s infection, but your baby may still be born with some problems caused by syphilis. A baby born with syphilis will be treated with penicillin.
You will be asked about your sexual partner(s). Your infection will be reported to the local health department and your sexual partner(s) will be told that they have had contact with someone who has a sexually transmitted infection. (Your name will not be given.) This will help them get prompt treatment for the infection. It can also help prevent new infections.
You can be reinfected if you have sex with someone who has untreated syphilis.
How can I take care of myself?
Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions and take all of your medicine as prescribed. Be sure to tell your provider if you are allergic to penicillin or other medicines.
Donâ€™t have sex until both you and your partner have finished all of the medicine and your provider says it’s OK.
Ask your healthcare provider:
How and when you will hear your test results
What other STDs you should be tested for
How long it will take to recover
If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to normal activities
When it is safe to have sex again
How to take care of yourself at home
What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.
How can I help prevent syphilis?
If you have syphilis, you can help prevent spread of the infection if you:
Get treatment right away to stop spread of the disease to your baby.
Tell anyone with whom you have had sexual contact in the last 3 months about your infection. Your sexual contacts need to be treated even if they don’t have any symptoms. After having sex, wash your hands before and after you use the toilet and before you touch any food, dishes, or utensils.
You can lower your risk of getting syphilis from someone else if you:
Use latex or polyurethane condoms during foreplay and every time you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex. However, condoms are not 100% effective because they do not cover all areas that can have the sores. Talk with your provider about this.
Have just 1 sexual partner who is not sexually active with anyone else. Make sure your partner has been tested for syphilis and other infections.
If you have had sex and are worried that you may have been infected, see your healthcare provider even if you donâ€™t have any symptoms.
If you have been sexually assaulted, you may need to be treated to prevent sexually transmitted infections. You should have an exam within a few hours of the assault (and before showering or bathing) even if you donâ€™t want to press charges.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth. Last modified: 2014-12-11 Last reviewed: 2014-12-11
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Syphilis During Pregnancy: References
ACOG Guidelines for Womenâ€™s Health Care, A Resource Manual, Fourth edition, 2014.