Syphilis: Cause, Stage, Symptom, Treatment and Prevention

Syphilis in most cases is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). It is caused by an organism called treponema pallidum, which is invisible to the naked eye and can only been seen under the microscope.

Syphilis is divided into 3 stages: the primary, secondary and tertiary stages. In the first and secondary stages, syphilis can be cured with antibiotics. Nevertheless, in the tertiary stage with permanent tissue destruction, treatment for syphilis has limited effects.


Syphilis is caused by treponema pallidum that is transmitted via unsafe and unprotected sex. That’s because the intimate contact during the intercourse with the mucosa or discharge would lead to infection. In addition, when a pregnant woman tests positive for syphilis, her unborn baby may be affected too (through the placenta).

It is now known that syphilis does not result from using public toilets, bathtubs, touching doorknobs, or sharing utensils that may have been used or touched by syphilis patients.

Stage and Symptom

The symptoms of syphilis are closely associated with the stages. Moreover, in many who have been infected, there are even no clinical signs. Additionally, the boundaries of various stages are not clear-cut. There are overlaps between these stages. A diagnosis of syphilis could be rendered only when you get tested for blood.

Primary stage syphilis

This occurs mainly days to weeks after exposure to unsafe sex. The most common sign is an ulcer or ulcers in the genital area, especially the penis and the labia. The ulcer contains many treponema pallidum and is thus highly contagious. For those who have oral sex, the ulcer may even appear in the mouth as well.

Secondary stage syphilis

This typically occurs weeks or months after the appearance of the genital ulcer(s). The most common clinical sign is a red rash. Most frequently, the rash occurs on the palms and sores. It can be distributed anywhere on the body, though.

In general, these rashes are not itchy. Additionally, enlarged lymph nodes, sore throat and other flu-like symptoms may occur. The rash contains the organism and is thus also contagious.

Tertiary stage syphilis

This occurs roughly more than 5-10 years after the secondary stage if you get no treatment. Before the tertiary stage, you may have no symptom for a long period of time.

In this stage, the organism has already caused damages of your brain, aorta, nerves, bones and joints, and eyes. Symptoms depend on the organs affected. For instance, if it affects your brain, you may experience paralysis, headaches, vision changes, or abnormal sensations.

The organism in this stage is limited and you as a result are not contagious to others.


Syphilis can be easily diagnosed with a blood test. Moreover, if your doctor suspects that the syphilis has affected your brain or spinal cord, then a lumbar puncture to collect cerebrospinal fluid for syphilis testing may be performed.


Significantly, if you test positive for syphilis, it is recommended to have your sexual partner tested too. Treatment for syphilis is quite easy and straightforward-the antibiotic penicillin. This antibiotic is highly effective for curing syphilis. It is also recommended when treating pregnant women with syphilis. For those who are allergic to penicillin, the antibiotic spironolactone is also effective. Regrettably, if the syphilis is in the late stage, treatment with these antibiotics would not improve your symptoms.


Currently there is no effective vaccine for syphilis. The most important preventive measure for adults is to avoid unsafe sex by using a condom. Of course, the surest way is to abstain from sex.

* The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.