Syphilis is caused by a bacteria. It’s a disease that’s easily cured if it’s caught early. But many people don’t recognize they have syphilis because the symptoms are similar to many other diseases. If you are infected with syphilis and you don’t get treatment to cure it, the disease progresses in stages: primary, secondary, latent and tertiary syphilis. With each stage, the disease can inflict more serious and irreversible harm on your body. Syphilis also makes you much more susceptible to an HIV infection.
When you are first infected with syphilis, you are said to have primary syphilis. You are very contagious in the primary stage. About three weeks after you’re infected, a small sore called a chancre develops in the spot where the syphilis bacteria entered your body. The chancre might be painless and it might appear inside the vagina or rectum, so you might not notice it. Some people develop more than one chancre, and sometimes they are painful, especially if they develop around your genitals. The chancre will heal itself and go away after about six weeks. If you get treated for syphilis during the primary stage, you can cure the disease.
A couple of weeks after the chancre has healed, you progress into secondary syphilis. You are also very contagious in the secondary stage.You might notice a rash that covers your entire body. Sometimes the rash only appears on the palms of your hands or the soles of your feet. You might also notice wart-like sores in your mouth, your genital area or on the palms of your hands, white patches on your tongue or the roof of your mouth and you could have patchy hair loss. Some people get a sore throat and swollen lymph nodes, and others experience flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches and fever. The symptoms of secondary syphilis might go away after a couple of weeks, and they might occasionally reappear for the next year or so. If you get treated for syphilis during the secondary stage, you can cure the disease.
When secondary syphilis is untreated, the disease goes dormant. This is called the latent syphilis stage. You probably won’t experience any outwardly noticeable symptoms from the disease, but the disease will continue to damage your body on the inside. The disease might lie dormant in your body for 10 years, and it might not every surface again. However, some people go on to develop the final and most severe stage of syphilis.
When syphilis has been untreated for a long period of time, it begins to inflict serious damage on your body. In the tertiary stage, syphilis might attack the heart, nervous system and brain, and it can cause blindness, dementia, deafness, paralysis and death. Syphilis is still treatable at this stage, but you can’t reverse any of the damage it’s already done your internal organs and the rest of your body.
Do I Have Syphilis?
Syphilis can be detected at every stage with a simple blood test. However, when you test positive for syphilis, your name, birth date and other personal information must be sent to the health department by law within 24 hours. Soon after the health department receives the notice, someone will call you or visit you at home — unannounced — to speak to you about notifying your sexual partners so you can help stop the disease from spreading.
Anonymous Syphilis Test
If you don’t want to explain to others why the health department is ringing your doorbell and wants to speak with you, you must take extra steps to protect your identity. Follow the steps in our free guide to anonymous syphilis and STD testing to get an anonymous syphilis test and erase all evidence that you had a test performed. You can often get a prescription from a doctor over the phone if your test results are positive.
The longer you wait to get tested and get treatment for syphilis, the more damage it causes. There isn’t a single good reason to wait!
For more in-depth information on syphilis, visit the syphilis section of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.