Health Topics


Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection  caused by a bacteria called treponema pallidum.

You can get syphilis from:

  • Having direct contact with sores, rashes or bodily fluids such as semen, blood or vaginal fluids of a person who has syphilis.  You get syphilis during close skin-to-skin or sexual contact.
  • A pregnant woman can give syphilis to her baby before birth.  Syphilis can cause birth defects or death.

You are most likely to spread syphilis to others during the first year after getting the disease.

Most people who have syphilis have no symptoms. 

Signs and symptoms of syphilis

Syphilis progresses through different disease stages if it is not treated.  Each stage of syphilis has different symptoms:

1. Primary stage

  • A painless sore called a chancre develops at the site where bacteria entered your body, usually the penis, vagina, anus or mouth.
  • The chancre may go unnoticed because it is painless and goes away without treatment.
  • Even after the chancre goes away, the syphilis is not gone from your body.

2. Secondary stage

Weeks or months later you move into the secondary stage.  You may have:

  • Flu-like symptoms such as muscle or joint pain.
  • A rash on palms of hands, soles of feet or any part of the body.
  • Patchy hair loss.
  • Vision problems.

These symptoms go away and the infection enters a dormant stage.

3. Latent (dormant) stage

This stage occurs about one year after getting the infection. 

  • There are no visible symptoms. 
  • You can no longer pass the infection on to others.

The infection can remain in this stage for years.

3. Tertiary syphilis
At this stage, the infection can cause serious damage to organs in your body such as the brain, heart and blood vessels causing dementia, blindness, heart disease or death.

A blood test can tell you if you have syphilis.  Sometimes a swab is taken from the chancre (if present) and examined under a microscope.

Syphilis can be treated and cured with antibiotics.

  • Antibiotics are given by needles or as pills.
  • Follow up blood tests are important to make sure the disease is gone.

Here are some tips to prevent spreading syphilis to others:

  • Avoid oral, anal and vaginal sex and close contact with the chancre or rash until you or your sexual partner finish treatment and your doctor tells you that you can no longer infect others.
  • You can get re-infected every time you have sex with an untreated partner.

Here are some places you can get information, testing and treatment for syphilis:

Here are some tips for preventing syphilis:

  • Choose not to have sex. 
  • If you have sex, use a condom or dental dam from start to finish every time.
  • Be prepared. Keep condoms with you and be ready to use them.
  • Limit your number of partners. The chance of getting a sexually transmitted infection goes up with each new partner.
  • Get tested for sexually transmitted infections before having sex with a new partner and ask your partner to get tested too.
  • Having syphilis increases your chances of getting another sexually transmitted infection. If you test positive for syphilis, get tested for other sexually transmitted infections too, including HIV.

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