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Check The Facts About Syphilis

  • You can get syphilis from oral, anal, or vaginal sex
  • Syphilis makes it easier to get or give HIV
  • Syphilis can lead to brain damage and permanent vision loss in less than a year
  • If you are HIV+, syphilis can increase your viral load and decrease your t-cell count

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is caused by a type of bacteria. You can get syphilis by having anal, oral, or vaginal sex with someone who has it. While many STDs are passed through body fluids, syphilis is passed through direct contact with infected skin or mucous membranes (like the inside of the mouth or anus). Luckily, syphilis is curable.

Syphilis is a serious disease.

If not treated, syphilis can cause:

  • brain damage
  • permanent vision loss

  • hearing loss
  • paralysis

  • heart disease
and other serious long-term health problems

Many of the serious effects of syphilis can happen in less than a year, particularly if you are HIV positive. Once this damage occurs, it can be permanent.

The longer that syphilis is in your body, the more likely it is to do permanent damage. So, it’s important to be tested at least every 6 months (every 3 months if you’re HIV +).

Having syphilis also makes it easier to get or give HIV. If you’re HIV +, syphilis can increase your viral load and decrease your t-cell count, and your HIV infection can make all the other effects of syphilis worse.

Symptoms of syphilis

Many people never notice any signs of syphilis. However, the first sign may be a painless sore (or sores) on or around your penis, scrotum, mouth, or anus. The sore goes away by itself in a few weeks, but you are still infected. A few weeks or months later, you may get a rash (often on the palms of your hands, the soles of your feet, or your chest), fever, sore throat, fatigue, patchy hair loss, white patches on your tongue, or moist warts near your penis or anus. These symptoms will also go away by themselves. But you will still have syphilis until you get cured.

The signs and symptoms of syphilis can be very mild and you might not notice them. Also, the sore that occurs when you are first infected can be inside your mouth or anus, where you might not see it.

Preventing syphilis

The best way to protect yourself from getting syphilis in the first place is to limit your number of sex partners. The more people you have sex with, the greater your chance of getting syphilis. Using a condom every time you have sex can greatly reduce the risk of getting syphilis. Condoms may not be completely protective for syphilis because the syphilis sores can occur outside of the area covered by condoms. Also, while oral sex is considered low risk for HIV transmission, it is high risk for syphilis transmission. Using alcohol or drugs, especially crystal meth, can lead to risky behavior (like unprotected sex) that can increase your risk of getting syphilis.

Questions? Call the free STD hotline: 800-758-0880 | Find a Clinic | The Facts | Getting Tested | Getting Cured