Syphilis is an STI that can cause serious health problems if it is not treated.  It is spread by direct contact with a syphilis sore during vaginal, anal or oral sex.  Sores can be found around the penis, vagina or anus, in the rectum, on the lips or in the mouth.  It is not always obvious that a partner has syphilis as sores will be difficult to see if they are in the vagina, anus, under foreskin or in the mouth. Syphilis can affect men and women.


Symptoms vary with each stage of the infection.  The stages of syphilis are primary, secondary, latent and tertiary.


  • sores at the site of infection (around the genitals, around the anus or in the rectum or in or around the mouth)
    • sores are usually firm, round and painless
  • symptoms can be mild and go unnoticed


  • skin rash
    • on one or more areas of the body
    • rough, red or reddish-brown spots on the palms of the hands and/or bottoms of the feet
  • mucous membrane lesions (sores in the mouth, vagina or anus)
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • fever
  • symptoms can be mild and go unnoticed


  • no signs or symptoms


  • Can lead to serious medical problems affecting the heart, blood vessels, brain or nervous system


A blood test is used to test for syphilis.  Some health care providers will test fluid from a syphilis sore, if one is present, to diagnose.

Any person having unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex can get syphilis.  As with many STIs, if you are pregnant, testing is recommended at your first prenatal appointment.


Syphilis can be cured with the right antibiotics prescribed by your health care provider. Treatment cannot undo any damage already caused by the infection.

Follow up treatment is recommended to ensure the antibiotics cured the infection.

Without treatment, you can progress from primary stage to secondary stage. Symptoms of primary and secondary stage will go away over time without treatment.  This does not mean you do not have syphilis. From secondary stage, you can progress to latent stage and further still to tertiary stage. Most people with untreated syphilis do not develop tertiary syphilis. However, when it does progress to this stage, it can affect many organs including heart and blood vessels, brain and nervous system. Tertiary syphilis is very serious and can occur 10-30 years after initial exposure. This stage can damage your internal organs and can result in death.  Without treatment, syphilis can spread to the brain and nervous system resulting in neurosyphilis.  If syphilis travels to the eye, it is ocular syphilis.

Symptoms of Neurosyphilis:

  • Severe headache
  • Difficulty coordinating muscle movements
  • Paralysis
  • Numbness
  • Dementia

Symptoms of Ocular Syphilis

  • Changes in vision
  • Blindness

Syphilis in Pregnancy

Syphilis can be spread to the baby during pregnancy.  Having syphilis during pregnancy can lead to a preterm delivery and/or a baby with low birth weight.  Syphilis during pregnancy also puts you at risk for delivering a stillborn.  It is recommended those that are pregnant be tested for syphilis (among other STIs) during their first prenatal appointment.

Source: CDC