Syphilis is a bacterial infection usually spread by sexual contact. The disease starts as a painless sore — typically on the genitals, rectum or mouth. Syphilis spreads from person to person via skin or mucous membrane contact with these sores.
What Causes Syphilis
The cause of syphilis is a bacterium called Treponema pallidum. The most common way syphilis is spread is through contact with an infected person’s sore during sexual activity. The bacteria enter the body through minor cuts or abrasions in the skin or mucous membranes. Syphilis is contagious during its primary and secondary stages, and sometimes in the early latent period.
Less commonly, syphilis may spread through direct contact with an active lesion, such as during kissing. It can also be passed from mothers to their babies during pregnancy or childbirth.
Syphilis can’t be spread by using the same toilet, bathtub, clothing or eating utensils, or from doorknobs, swimming pools or hot tubs.
Once cured, syphilis doesn’t return on its own. However, you can become reinfected if you have contact with someone’s syphilis sore.
You face an increased risk of acquiring syphilis if you:
- Engage in unprotected sex
- Have sex with multiple partners
- Are a man who has sex with men
- Are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS
Without treatment, syphilis can lead to damage throughout your body. Syphilis also increases the risk of HIV infection and can cause problems during pregnancy. Treatment can help prevent future damage but can’t repair or reverse damage that’s already occurred
Small Bumps or Tumors
In the late stage of syphilis, bumps (gummas) can develop on the skin, bones, liver or any other organ. Gummas usually disappear after treatment with antibiotics.
Syphilis can cause a number of problems with the nervous system, including:
- Hearing loss
- Visual problems, including blindness
- Loss of pain and temperature sensations
- Sexual dysfunction in men
- Bladder incontinence
These may include bulging and swelling of the aorta — your body’s major artery — and of other blood vessels. Syphilis may also damage heart valves.
Adults with sexually transmitted syphilis or other genital ulcers have an estimated two- to fivefold increased risk of contracting HIV. A syphilis sore can bleed easily, providing an easy way for HIV to enter the bloodstream during sexual activity.
Pregnancy and Childbirth Complications
If you’re pregnant, you may pass syphilis to your unborn baby. Congenital syphilis greatly increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth or your newborn’s death within a few days after birth.
There is no vaccine for syphilis. To help prevent the spread of syphilis, follow these suggestions:
- Abstain or be monogamous. The only certain way to avoid syphilis is to avoid (abstain from) having sex. The next-best option is to have mutually monogamous sex in which both partners have sex only with each other and neither partner is infected.
- Use a latex condom. Condoms can reduce your risk of contracting syphilis, but only if the condom covers the syphilis sores.
- Avoid recreational drugs. Misuse of alcohol or other drugs can inhibit your judgment and lead to unsafe sexual practices.
Partner Notification and Preventive Treatment
If tests show that you have syphilis, your sex partners — including current partners and any other partners you’ve had over the last three months to one year — need to be informed so that they can get tested. If they’re infected, they can then be treated.
Official, confidential partner notification can help limit the spread of syphilis. The practice also steers those at risk toward counseling and the right treatment. And since you can contract syphilis more than once, partner notification reduces your risk of getting reinfected.
Screening for Pregnant Women
People can be infected with syphilis and not know it. In light of the often deadly effects syphilis can have on unborn children, health officials recommend that all pregnant women be screened for the disease.