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Sexual and Reproductive Health

Syphilis

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a bacteria (Treponema pallidum). The infection progresses in stages.

How do I get syphilis?

Syphilis is passed between people through sexual contact (anal, oral, or vaginal). You can spread it to others without knowing it.

Pregnant people can pass the infection to their unborn baby. Babies can also get infected if they have contact with a lesion or open sore on the birth parent’s genitals while they’re being born.

How can I prevent syphilis?

The only sure way to prevent a syphilis infection is to have no sexual contact (abstinence), including anal, oral, or vaginal sex.

It’s important to use these methods of protection correctly. To learn the right way to use the different types of condoms, watch the following videos:

When you’re sexually active, the best way to prevent syphilis is to use condoms, vaginal condoms, or dental dams for anal, oral, or vaginal sex.

Don’t have any sexual contact if you or your partner(s) have symptoms of an STI, or may have been exposed to an STI. See a healthcare provider or go to an STI or Sexual Reproductive Health Clinic for testing.

Get STI testing if you have symptoms or every 3 to 6 months if you have:

  • a new partner
  • more than one partner
  • anonymous partners

How do I know I have syphilis?

Many people with syphilis have no symptoms, while others may have:

  • sores on or near the penis or in and around the vagina, mouth, or rectum
  • a rash on the palms of the hands, feet, or the whole body

The sores and rash may not be painful.

The best way to find out if you have syphilis is to get tested. Your nurse or doctor will do a blood test and test you for other STIs and HIV.

Is syphilis harmful?

If not treated, syphilis may cause blindness, paralysis, deafness, brain and heart disease, and mental health problems. These effects can be prevented if you get early STI testing and treatment.

What if I’m pregnant?

If you’re pregnant with syphilis and you don’t get treated, syphilis can cause:

  • late-term miscarriage—your baby dies in your womb
  • birth defects—problems with your baby’s genes or other health problems
  • stillbirth

Syphilis can also:

  • damage your baby’s bones, teeth, vision, and hearing
  • affect how their brain develops
  • cause anemia and lung infections

When a pregnant person is treated before delivering their baby, these problems can be prevented.

How is syphilis treated?

Syphilis is treated with antibiotics. Your partner(s) also needs to be tested and treated, even if they have no symptoms. You can get re infected if you have unprotected sex with someone before they’re treated.

Your blood test for syphilis will likely stay positive, even if you’ve been properly treated. But, you can be re infected if you’re exposed again.

After treatment, you’ll have follow-up blood tests at 3, 6, and 12 months to make sure the treatment worked.

When can I have sex again?

If you’ve been diagnosed with syphilis, then your sexual partner(s) may also have syphilis. It’s important that your partner(s) be tested and treated before you have sex with them again.

It will take 1 week for the antibiotic to get rid of the infection. The best protection is not to have sex (anal, oral, or vaginal) for at least 7 days. If you do choose to have sex, don’t have unprotected sex (anal, oral, or vaginal) for 7 days after you and your partner(s) have been treated.

If you still have symptoms, don’t have any sexual contact until you’ve seen your healthcare provider.

Should I tell my partner(s)?

Yes. You need to tell your partner(s) so you can stop the infection from spreading. It might be hard or embarrassing, but it’s important to have an open and honest conversation with your partner(s), and it’s important for them to be tested and treated.

There are a few ways to tell your partner(s). You can tell them yourself or public health can help you. Talk to your healthcare provider about what’s right for you.

Do I need to tell my partner(s) right away?

Yes. Make sure you and your partner(s) are treated at the same time, even if they don’t have symptoms. You can get infected with syphilis again if you have unprotected sex with a partner who hasn’t been treated.

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