Syphilis Symptoms

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is caused by the 'spirochaete' bacterium known as 'Treponema pallidum' and affects both, men and women. Syphilis has gained the nickname 'the great imitator' or 'the great imposter', because many signs and symptoms of syphilis are identical to other infections and diseases.
Syphilis is infectious and is spread on contact with broken skin or the mucous membranes, usually through intimate sexual contact. The syphilis bacteria can also be transmitted through blood transfusions or from an infected mother to her unborn fetus. However, it cannot be contracted through toilet seats, utensils or clothing. The first effective treatment for the disease was tested in 1910, by Nobel Laureate Dr. Paul Elhrich and was a drug called Salvarsan. It was not until the 1940s that penicillin came to be recognized as a surer treatment for syphilis and began to be used all around the world. Today, syphilis is treated with antibiotics such as penicillin G and ceftriaxone. The drugs doxycycline or azithromycin are effective in treatment of syphilis. The incidence of syphilis was reduced drastically in the mid 1950s after the widespread use of penicillin, however, has seen a resurgence in recent times due to increasing promiscuity, homosexuality and the lack of preventive measures.

Symptoms of syphilis depend on the stage of the infection. Following are the four main stages of the infection:
  • Primary syphilis
  • Secondary syphilis
  • Latent syphilis
  • Tertiary syphilis
Many patients tend to exhibit very few signs and symptoms of syphilis and these often go unnoticed, or are confused with some other ailment, such as skin diseases or even lymphoma. Generally, the patient will have painless sores and swollen lymph nodes. If the disease progresses to the next phase, the patient could experience body pain, loss of appetite, fatigue and fever. If not treated at this stage, it could cause problems to the liver, heart, brain, and nervous system, eventually proving fatal.

☤Stage 1: Primary Syphilis

Primary syphilis will show between two weeks to three months after infection. It begins with a skin sore known as a chancre. There could be one or many such chancres appearing on different parts of the body, especially if syphilis is in conjunction with HIV. They could appear on the penis, scrotum, on or inside the vagina, anus, or the mouth, and are usually not painful. Even if totally ignored, they will go away within a few weeks. This, however, does not mean that the disease has been cured but only that it is ready to progress into the next stage, the secondary stage of syphilis.

☤Stage 2: Secondary Syphilis

The second stage of syphilis is the most contagious of all stages. It occurs normally after about 4 to 10 weeks of contracting the infection, as the bacteria spreads through the body. Following are some of the symptoms of secondary syphilis.
  • Rashes on the body, but mainly on the palms and soles. The lesions are highly contagious and must be treated with care.
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Sudden hair loss
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Headache
  • Body pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • White patches on different parts of the body.
It is difficult for a patient to link these symptoms to syphilis because they are similar to many other infections and diseases. If not treated at this stage, the above symptoms will clear away in some time but will progress to the next stage known as latent syphilis.

☤Stage 3: Latent Syphilis

Once the symptoms of secondary syphilis have dissipated, the disease will progress into the third stage. There are no symptoms for latent syphilis and the infection can only be detected by a blood test. If left untreated, latent syphilis will continue for life.

☤Stage 4: Tertiary Syphilis

When syphilis is not treated in the secondary stage and progresses to latent syphilis, it remains dormant for some time before progressing the final stage of tertiary syphilis. It could take anywhere between 2 to 20 years (as much as 50 years in rare cases) for the infection to reach the tertiary syphilis stage. The bacteria keep multiplying and gradually damage and form lesions in the bones, nervous tissues, skin, liver, heart, and arteries. Lesions of the central nervous system can cause neurological disorders, whereas, those of the heart can cause serious damage to the aorta and heart valves. Tertiary syphilis could cause blindness, mental problems, deafness, paralysis, heart failure, and even death.


Visit your physician immediately if you observe any symptoms of syphilis, no matter how innocuous. The doctor will check for physical symptoms such as a chancre or a skin rash. A blood sample will be taken and sent for analysis. If found positive for syphilis, a doctor shall prescribe the required medication, taking into account the stage to which the disease has progressed. Penicillin is the most effective medication in controlling and curing the disease. For first-stage syphilis, a dose of penicillin G, administered intravenously is the common treatment. It is important that treatment starts in the first or second stage. Tertiary syphilis is treated with larger doses of penicillin for a longer duration. However, if the disease has progressed to the brain, even this may not prove effective, as the improvement, if any, shall be minimal, and the damage to the system cannot be undone.

Although initial diagnosis of syphilis is difficult, blood tests are an accepted confirmation method, along with dark field microscopy, which gives instant results. Congenital syphilis can be detected in the womb and preventive measures taken, the WHO recommends that pregnant mothers get themselves tested twice, once after conception and again during the third trimester. According to data released by the Center for Disease Control, the total number of cases of syphilis reported in the United States was a high 46,042, in 2011. The only way to safeguard against syphilis, is to practice safe monogamous sex, even condoms are not considered a sure preventive barrier in dealing with the infection, as syphilis sores can form on other parts of the body and still be a threat. As the old saying goes - prevention is better than cure.

Disclaimer: This article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for professional medical advice.
By Kevin Mathias
Last Updated: 1/18/2013
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