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Facts About...


What is it?

Syphilis is a serious sexually transmitted infection. The first sign is a painless sore (chancre/lesion) where the bacteria entered the body. Many people, especially women, do not notice the sore so don’t even know that they have been infected. The second stage is a body rash, which may come weeks later. Not everyone will get the rash. If left untreated, syphilis can affect the whole body including the brain.

How is it spread?

Syphilis is spread by direct contact with the sores, rash or body fluids (saliva, semen, blood, vaginal secretions) of an infected person. Sexually, it is spread by having genital, anal, or oral sex with an infected person. Pregnant women with syphilis can give the disease to their unborn children. Syphilis can also cause birth defects. Doctors usually do a syphilis test on every pregnant woman at their first prenatal visit.

What do I look for?

Syphilis symptoms often go away in 6 months even with no treatment. But the bacteria can still damage your body and you are still able to spread the disease through sexual contact. Years later syphilis can enter its third stage, causing heart disease, brain damage or death. Early treatment can protect against this. People with genital sores caused by syphilis have a greater chance of getting infected by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Syphilis is often much more severe and develops rapidly in people co-infected with HIV.

How is it treated?

Syphilis is treated with antibiotics, usually penicillin. The course of treatment depends on the stage of infection. Penicillin is given by an injection into the muscle. A one-time injection or a weekly injection over a period of 3 weeks is required depending on the stage of the infection, determined by your physician or health care provider. It is very important to complete treatment exactly as prescribed.

How can I protect myself?

  • Refrain from sexual activity until all antibiotic treatment is completed and lesions disappear.
  • Avoid drinking alcoholic beverages while being treated with antibiotics.
  • Return for follow-up and blood tests with your health care provider.
  • Tell all previous sexual partners within the time frame indicated by your doctor/health care provider that you have syphilis. They should be seen by their health care provider and, if needed, treated. A nurse from the Health Department will ask to contact your partner(s) to provide health education.
  • If you are pregnant, ask your health care provider for prenatal screening of syphilis.
  • Practice safe sex. Use condoms with lubricant to lower the chance of sexually transmitted infections.

January 22, 2014

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