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Syphilis

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STi) that can have very serious problems when left untreated, but it is simple to cure with antibiotics. You can get syphilis by direct contact with a syphilis sore during anal, vaginal, or oral sex. You cannot get syphilis from casual contact with objects like toilet seats, hot tubs, swimming pools, doorknobs or eating utensils.

Syphilis has been called ‘the great imitator’ because it has so many possible symptoms, many of which look like symptoms of other diseases. Left untreated, this infection can cause severe, debilitating and untreatable problems, including, blindness, deafness, confusion, and personality changes.

Syphilis can be passed from a mother to her unborn baby. Women who are pregnant should be tested for syphilis at the first prenatal visit, again in the third trimester and again when the baby is born.

Antibiotics can cure syphilis, but may not undo the damage the infection has already done.

Syphilis goes through stages and the symptoms may appear different in each stage. Some people notice no symptoms at all.

After initial infection, a person may notice a single, or sometimes multiple painless sores where they came in contact with the virus. This stage is called the Primary Stage. These sores are usually around the penis, vagina, anus, rectum, lips or in the mouth. These sores will heal on their own in three to six weeks, but the virus is still inside the body. In many cases, these sores are mistaken for an ingrown hair, zipper cut, or pimple.

During the Secondary Stage, an infected person may notice a non-itchy, reddish-brown rash. This rash generally appears on the hands and feet, but can be anywhere on the body or even cover the body. Other symptoms during this stage may include a fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue. These symptoms will go away on their own and the person will move to Latent Stage.

In the Latent Stage, there will be no visible signs or symptoms of the infection, though it can remain in the body for years.

Left untreated, the infection may develop into the Tertiary Stage although this does not always happen. This long-term exposure to syphilis damages multiple internal organs, including the heart, brain and nervous system and can result in death. This stage of the infection occurs 10-30 years after the infection began.

Syphilis is particularly dangerous to developing fetuses. It is important for pregnant women to be tested three times during pregnancy – at the first prenatal visit, again in the third trimester, and when the baby is born. 

Congenital Syphilis – when syphilis is transmitted from mother to infant – can have lifelong and sometime deadly effects. Babies exposed to syphilis may be born with low birth weight, have bone growth problems, blindness, deafness, seizures or other neurological disorders or be stillborn (a baby born dead).

Only laboratory tests can confirm whether you have syphilis. Follow-up testing by a health care provider is recommended to make sure that your treatment was successful. Having syphilis once does not protect from getting it again. Even after you’ve been successfully treated, you can still get syphilis again. Because syphilis sores can be hidden in the vagina, anus, under the foreskin of the penis, or in the mouth, it may not be obvious that a sex partner has syphilis. Unless you know that your sex partner(s) have been tested and treated, you may be at risk of getting syphilis again from an untreated sex partner.

During the Primary and Secondary Stages, syphilis is highly infectious.

The only way to avoid syphilis is to not have vaginal, anal, or oral sex. If you are having sex, you can lower your chances of getting syphilis if you limit the number of sex partners and use a latex condom the right way, every time you have sex.

Syphilis can be treated with antibiotics, but treatment cannot reverse damage that has already occurred. It is essential that those infected complete the full treatment, refrain from sex during treatment, and follow up with their doctor to confirm that they are free of the infection. All sexual partners should also be tested and treated.


Contact Information

Mailing Address:
Oklahoma State Department of Health
Sexual Health and Harm Reduction Services
123 Robert S. Kerr Ave, Ste 1702
Oklahoma City, OK 73102-6406

Physical Address:
Oklahoma State Department of Health
Sexual Health and Harm Reduction Services
123 Robert S. Kerr Ave.
Oklahoma City, OK

Phone: (405) 426-8400
Email: SHHRFax@health.ok.gov

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