The Sneaky Signs of Syphilis
The signs of syphilis are more complicated to explain than just providing a simple list. In fact, a wide variety of symptoms often hide within several stages of this sexually transmitted infection (STI). Today, we’ll take a closer look at these stages to help you understand the possible signs of syphilis. It is one of the most widespread sexually transmitted infections in the United States with 88,000 documented cases in 2016 alone. It seems that more men are getting infected with syphilis by the day, particularly homosexual and bisexual men. Many men who have syphilis don’t know for a few years if they haven’t been tested.
This infection, caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum, is a highly contagious disease that is spread primarily through sexual activity. Syphilis is spread via open sores, but relying on your visible symptoms is not a good preventative strategy. The fact is, the vast majority of those sores are often missed by a quick visual spot-check. This means that those who have it are often completely unaware of their condition, resulting in even more infections because these unknowing carriers spread it to their partners. It can be transmitted via oral and anal sex, and occasionally even by kissing. Contrary to many urban legends and superstitions, syphilis absolutely cannot be spread via toilet seats, touching a doorknob or sharing a hot tub.
Syphilis: Hiding in Plain Sight
Syphilis is one of the most widespread STIs. Recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention actually indicate that it is more popular than ever before. Across the United States, the infection rate has shot up in recent years.
It’s also easy to understand why we’re seeing more and more cases of syphilis: we are all at risk. Literally anyone who engages in any form of sexual activity is at risk for infection. Syphilis is usually transmitted via vaginal, anal or oral sex and, like other STIs, doesn’t discriminate based on age, race or sexual orientation.
As we mentioned above, the signs of syphilis are more varied than you may expect. It is essentially hiding in plain sight. The signs of syphilis are subtle and easy to miss But if we look at the distinct stages of its lifecycle, you will know what to look out for. Here is more information about those stages:
Signs of Syphilis in the Primary Stage
The earliest phase of an infection may not show any visible symptoms at all. If there is a detectable sign of syphilis, it may be something as innocuous as a tiny, painless sore. This sore often appears within the first three weeks after initial transmission. Typically, it will appear at the location where syphilis first entered your body. It can be difficult to notice. You may even mistake this sore for acne or an ingrown hair.
Within three-to-six weeks, this sore will disappear. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. The infection is still inside your body. It is important that you test for STIs and, if you test positive, receive treatment. This is the only way to fully eliminate syphilis and avoid spreading it to your partners.
Signs of Syphilis in the Secondary Stage
In the secondary stage, you may notice several new visible signs of syphilis. This can include a bright red rash. In particularly nasty cases, this rash could cover your entire body. Other syphilis symptoms to watch out for during the secondary stage include:
- A red rash may appear. Though not typically itchy, it can spread throughout the entire body, including the hands and feet.
- Skin rashes and/or sores in the mouth, vagina, or anus (also called mucous membrane lesions)
- Swollen lymph glands
- Sore throat
- Patchy hair loss
- Weight loss
These symptoms will usually vanish within a few weeks. Remember though, that you are still infected. This lull in symptoms is actually the syphilis infection powering up for the third stage, Latent Syphilis.
Signs of Syphilis in the Third Stage (“Latent Syphilis”)
Latent Syphilis may not seem like a “stage” at all. However, looks can be deceiving. For potentially several years, you may not notice any visible symptoms.
As you may have guessed, this is just the STI preparing to reach its final form.
Late-Stage Signs of Syphilis (“Tertiary Syphilis”)
The final stage of syphilis is often called “Tertiary Syphilis.” Approximately 15 to 30 percent of untreated syphilis cases progress this far. It can occur any time between 10 and 30 years following the initial onset of the infection.
The signs and symptoms of syphilis during this late stage may include:
- Loss of muscle control and coordination
- Death is a possible outcome due to widespread damage to the heart, liver, bones, and joints
There is one other type of syphilis: congenital syphilis. This is the form that a pregnant mother accidentally transfers to her unborn child. Most newborns will not show any sign of having the disease, but it is possible for them to suffer from a number of complications, ranging from a simple rash to deafness, teeth deformities and the collapse of the nasal bone.
All pregnant women are usually tested for syphilis during their first prenatal visit. You could call up your doctor and ask for a syphilis test, or, you could simply order one online and screen for this infection at home. Using myLAB Box, you’ll send a small blood sample off to our labs.
Unchecked Syphilis Leads to Serious Trouble
As we’ve seen, untreated syphilis can eventually lead to some serious long-term health problems. These complications may include arthritis, blindness and brain damage. If left long enough, a syphilis infection may become fatal.
For pregnant women with syphilis, there are additional risks. It is possible for you to transmit the infection to your unborn child. A baby born with syphilis may suffer from a number of complications. These can range from a simple rash and teeth deformities to deafness or the collapse of the nasal bone.
What Happens if My Syphilis Test Comes Back Positive?
Your syphilis test will come back either positive (reactive) or negative (non-reactive). Keep in mind that a positive diagnosis cannot be established until a TP-PA confirmation test is run, testing serum and differentiating syphilis from other conditions. You can use our free telemedicine physicians if you get a syphilis test with a positive result. They’ll help you find a doctor nearby for further testing and treatment. If your syphilis test was positive, let your partner know right away so that they can take a test and seek out treatment.
Syphilis is curable and can be treated with antibiotics. Unfortunately, if you wait too long to find out you have syphilis, treatment won’t undo damage that the infection has already done on your body. Treating syphilis is more about alleviating symptoms and making you more comfortable.
Fight Back with Testing and Treatment
Regular STI screenings should be a cornerstone of everyone’s sexual health. At this point, it should be easy to see how tricky a syphilis infection can be. Recognizing syphilis symptoms can be difficult. They often resemble common ailments. These signs of syphilis could even be invisible for years at a time. Just to be safe, we should all get tested regularly. A lab-certified blood test, like the one included in myLAB Box’s home testing kits, is the only way to absolutely know your status.
Reviewed by Luis Ferdinand M. Papa, MD, MHA