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Syphilis & the Stages of Infection

Syphilis & the Stages of Infection


Syphilis is an STI that presents in many different stages.  It can be asymptomatic to start but can develop into life threatening issues if left untreated.  How then do you know if you have syphilis???  You get tested regularly. Your sexual wellness is important to all aspects of your health and requires attention and prevention to maintain its wellness.


What is Syphilis?


Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum.  It is spread by unprotected vaginal, anal, and even oral sex.  It is highly contagious and can cause permanent damage without treatment.  Syphilis is spread from skin-to-skin contact by someone with a sore or chancre.  It is often spread unknowingly as not all infected individuals are aware of its presence. This is why testing for STIs is so important. 


Stages of Syphilis


There are four main stages of syphilis each with its own set of symptoms:  Primary, Secondary, Latent, and Tertiary.


Primary Stage:


  • A sore or sores at the original site of infection.
  • These sores can be found on or around the genitals, the anus or rectum, or in or around the mouth.
  • These sores are usually firm, round, and painless.
  • They heal within 3-6 weeks even without treatment


Secondary Stage:


  • Skin rashes may appear on palms of hands and bottoms of feet.  They are not always itchy
  • Mucous membrane lesions can appear in the mouth, anus, or vagina
  • Can also have a fever, swollen lymph glands and sore throat
  • Other symptoms may include patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and/or fatigue


Latent Stage:


  • This stage is when you have no visible signs or symptoms of syphilis
  • If you did not have any treatment, you can continue to have syphilis without any signs or symptoms for many years


Tertiary Stage:


  • This is a rare stage but very serious. It presents with damage to organs and body systems
  • This stage can result in death

The different stages can all present with secondary complications from the systemic impact on one’s overall health.  These complications can present in many different ways dependent upon the stage of the infection.


Testing and Treatment


Testing for syphilis is simple with either a blood test or swab of a chancre.  Syphilis is easy to test and treatable with antibiotics.  It is very important that you tell your sexual partners if you test positive so that they may get tested as well.  According to the CDC reported cases of syphilis (all stages) have increased 74 percent since 2017, totaling more than 176,000 cases in 2021.




As with all STIs, the only way to prevent transmission is to abstain from any sexual activity.  But there are things that can be done to help reduce the risk of transmission when engaging in sexual activity.


  • Get tested regularly, after new sexual partners or if a condom or barrier breaks during use
  • Use a Dam (Oral Barrier) every time you have oral/vaginal or oral/anal sex
  • Use a condom every time you have vaginal or anal sex
  • Don’t share sex toys or clean them before sharing
  • Condoms should be used to cover the penis during oral sex
  • Talk with your sexual partners about both of your sexual health

There are many ways to effectively help prevent the transmission of syphilis and maintain one’s sexual wellbeing. Using condoms and oral barriers, either latex and non-latex for those with allergies, are an important part of safer sex practices. Regular testing as needed is also a responsible and healthy practice to implement into one’s life.  Sexual health is important to maintain throughout all the stages of one’s life.

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