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9  Facts About Syphilis

1. What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause serious health problems if it is not treated. Syphilis is divided into primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary stages, with different signs and symptoms associated with each stage of infection.

2. How is syphilis spread?

You can get syphilis by direct contact with a syphilis sore during vaginal, anal, or oral sex from sores on or around the penis, vagina, anus, in the rectum, on the lips, or in the mouth. Syphilis can spread from an infected mother to her unborn baby.


3. Who should get tested?
Photo of pregnant woman with young son.

  • Syphilis is very harmful to a growing fetus. Pregnant women should get tested for syphilis and other STIs early in the pregnancy, with repeat testing as needed, to protect the health of the mother and baby.
  • All sexually active gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM) should get tested every year. MSM with multiple or anonymous partners should be screened more frequently for STIs such as at 3-to-6 month intervals. Read more about Sexually Transmitted Infection here.

Find a testing location near you. 

4. What are symptoms of syphilis?  Photo of hands with a syphilis rash

Syphilis is divided into stages (primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary), with different signs and symptoms associated with each stage. A person with primary syphilis generally has a sore or sores at the original site of infection. These sores usually occur on or around the genitals, around the anus, in the rectum, or in or around the mouth. The sores are usually (but not always) firm, round, and painless.

Symptoms of secondary syphilis include skin rash, swollen lymph nodes, and fever. The signs and symptoms of primary and secondary syphilis can be mild, and might not be noticed. During the latent stage, there are no signs or symptoms. Tertiary syphilis is associated with severe medical problems affecting the heart, brain and other organs. Examples of syphilis sores and rashes

5. How common is syphilis in Montana?

There were more than 40 cases of syphilis reported in Montana last year. There were two cases of congenital syphilis, which is when a mother passes it on to her baby before birth, causing much damage to the growing fetus.  

2021 Syphilis Cases through May 22, 2021

6. What if I don't get treated?

Untreated syphilis can spread to the brain, the nervous system or to the eye during any of the stages described above. Without the right treatment, your infection will move to the latent and possibly tertiary stages.

Most people with untreated syphilis do not develop tertiary syphilis. However, when it does occur, it can affect many different organ systems, including the heart, brain and nervous system. Tertiary syphilis is very serious and would occur 10–30 years after your infection began. It can result in blindness, dementia, paralysis or death.

7. Can syphilis be cured?

There are no home remedies or over-the-counter drugs that will cure syphilis, but it is easy to cure in the early stages. A single shot of a specific type of penicillin will cure a person of primary, secondary or later stages of the disease, though advanced syphilis needs more treatment. This will kill the syphilis bacterium and prevent further damage, but it will not repair damage already done.
Read more here about Syphilis. 

8. When can I have sex again?

After treatment, wait until syphilis sores are completely healed. You should notify your sex partners so that they also can be tested and receive treatment if necessary.

9. How can I reduce my chances of getting syphilis?

The only way to avoid syphilis and other STIs is to not have vaginal, anal or oral sex.

Because syphilis sores can be painless and 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 all of your sex partner(s) have been tested and treated, you may be at risk of getting syphilis again from an infected partner.

PrEP, Pre Exposure Prophylaxis, a pill taken daily to prevent HIV infection, will NOT protect you from syphilis. PrEP is also known by the brand name Truvada or Descovy.

Having syphilis once does not protect you from getting it again.

If you are sexually active, you can do the following things to lower your chances of getting syphilis:

 Being in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested for syphilis and has negative STI results.

Using latex condoms, the right way, every time you have sex. Condoms prevent transmission of syphilis by preventing contact with a sore. Sometimes sores occur in areas not covered by a condom. Contact with these sores can still transmit syphilis.

Where can I learn more about syphilis?

Visit CDC's syphilis website featuring factsheets, posters, videos, statistics and more. Please contact your local health department for questions and reporting issues.

Health Alert: Continued Syphilis Transmission in Montana, Including Increasing Impact on Women