Syphilis

WHAT IS IT?

Syphilis is a bacterial STI. It used to be considered rare in Canada, but is now on the rise. Syphilis occurs in stages – primary syphilis, secondary syphilis, early latent syphilis, and tertiary syphilis.

HOW WOULD I GET IT?

Syphilis can be spread through unprotected oral, vaginal, or anal sex by coming in direct contact with bacteria contained in the syphilitic sores or rashes. In rare cases, syphilis can be spread through the sharing of unclean needles or receiving a blood transfusion. Syphilis can also be passed from a woman to a fetus, during pregnancy, which can result in death of the fetus or congenital syphilis in the infant. Congenital syphilis is a severe, disabling, and often life-threatening infection.

HOW WOULD I KNOW I HAD IT?

As mentioned above, syphilis occurs in stages and each stage is associated with unique symptoms.

Primary syphilis
3 days to 3 months after exposure, an infected individual develops a small, painless sore called a chancre (pronounced ‘shang-ker’). Many people don’t notice the sore. The chancre appears on the part of the body where the bacteria entered, such as external genitalia, on the cervix, in the vagina, under the foreskin, in the anus, mouth, or throat. The chancre will heal on its own without treatment, but the infection remains.

Secondary syphilis
2 weeks to 6 months after exposure, an infected individual may develop a range of symptoms, which commonly include the following:
• A general feeling of being unwell
• A rash anywhere on the body, but typically on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
• Patchy hair loss
• Flat, smooth warts in the genital area (not the same as those caused by genital warts)

Early latent syphilis
This stage is usually asymptomatic (no symptoms), but for the first year after exposure, the infected individual can still pass the bacteria on to partners, and may have recurrences of lesions or rashes.

Tertiary syphilis
If left untreated, an infected individual may develop tertiary syphilis. This can lead to damage of the cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels); the neurological system (brain, nerves), and other major organs of the body.

To learn more about how to get tested for syphilis, please visit the STI Testing section of our website.

CAN IT BE TREATED AND CURED?

Yes. Syphilis can be treated with antibiotics. It is important for both (all) partners to be treated. Response to treatment must be monitored over time to ensure it is effective, especially in individuals co-infected with HIV.

IF IT ISN’T TREATED, CAN IT LEAD TO MORE SERIOUS PROBLEMS?

Yes. Syphilis can lead to serious complications if not detected and treated early. As mentioned above, an infected individual can progress to the tertiary stage of syphilis. This can lead to damage of the cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels); the neurological system (brain, nerves), and other major organs of the body. Complications of tertiary syphilis may lead to death.

It is also important to note that all persons infected with syphilis are at increased risk of contracting and transmitting HIV.