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Infectious Disease Services

Epidemiology and Disease Intervention ServicesSTD and Testing

Syphilis Transmission, Symptoms, and Treatment 


Syphilis is a Sexually Transmitted Infection/Disease (STI/STD). It can be passed through any type of sex (Oral, Vaginal, and Anal sex) and also from mother to child before delivery. Most people are infected with syphilis when they come into direct contact with the syphilis sore or chancre, mucosal (moist) lesions, or condylomata lata (wart like growths during secondary syphilis).


Syphilis infection can result in a whole constellation of symptoms. In the first year of untreated infection, symptoms may consist of –

  • A painless lesion also referred to as a chancre. Syphilis is almost always contracted through direct contact with this lesion which is full of the organism that transmits syphilis. The chancre appears at the site of contact which could include the genitals, rectal area, and mouth
  • A rash may appear that takes a number of forms
    • Palmar/Plantar rash consisting of spots on the hands and feet
    • A rash on the body usually the trunk both front and back
    • Spots on the face
  • Condylomata lata which appears as wart-like growths that appear on the genital area. These growths are very infectious.
  • Other clinical manifestations of early syphilis may include
    • Generalized swelling of the lymph node in various places on the body
    • Fever
    • General feeling of tiredness
    • Oral mucous patches
    • Temporary hair loss
  • Ocular involvement that can occur at any time during the course of untreated syphilis, even during the initial stages. Diminished eyesight and even blindness can occur.

Untreated syphilis infections for longer than a year can have other serious consequences. Such symptoms include,

  • Neurosyphilis which is an infection of the brain and related tissues. Symptoms include
    • Cognitive dysfunction
    • Motor or sensory deficits such as difficulty walking
    • Optic nerve involvement with impaired eyesight
    • Hearing loss
    • Ocular involvement as mentioned.
  • Gummas which is a necrotizing destruction of the skin, bones, and internal organs
  • Aortic aneurism. The aorta can develop a weakness producing a bulge that risks bursting leading to instant death

All of these symptoms can seem quite alarming. But by testing as needed per your risks and recognizing potential early symptoms, most people can be cured with no permanent damage.


  • Syphilis is treated with antibiotics
  • Adequate treatment will kill the bacteria and thus prevent further damage
  • Damage caused by syphilis cannot be reversed
  • Untreated syphilis can lead to serious life threatening conditions