Medically reviewed on February 15, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. Last updated October 2, 2023. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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Syphilis is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the country . While it typically affects men more frequently, women are not immune. Thankfully, modern STD testing can catch a syphilis infection, which can often be easily cured with a round of antibiotics; however, understanding the signs and symptoms of a syphilis infection is integral to diagnosing and treating it. Learn more about syphilis and its symptoms in women below.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by a bacteria known as Treponema pallidum . The bacteria spreads primarily via vaginal and anal sex. Transmission via oral sex is rare, but it’s possible. Syphilis can infect the genitals and anus and sometimes the lips and mouth.
Learn more: How to Test for Syphilis in Women
Syphilis spreads via direct sexual skin-to-skin contact, and it does not require the transfer of sexual fluids. However, syphilis can’t spread through casual contact, so it can’t spread by sharing food or drinks, holding hands, hugging, or sharing towels. Even if you have the bacterial infection on the lips or mouth, you can’t spread it through coughing or sneezing. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t get syphilis from sitting on a toilet seat.
The characteristic sign of syphilis is the appearance of a sore, known as a chancre, on the infected area. These sores are firm, round, and painless, though they can potentially burst and become open and wet. This is also when the bacterial infection is at its most contagious. Chances are easy to mistake for harmless pimples, in-grown hairs, or simple blemishes, and they typically appear in hard-to-spot areas, like within the vagina or inside the rectum.
Cankers usually show up anywhere from three weeks to three months after initial exposure. The sores themselves will usually go away on their own after a few weeks, even if you don’t get treated for them. However, the syphilis infection is still in the system.
Left untreated, syphilis will progress to a secondary stage, during which you may experience a body rash that can spread to the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands. The rash typically doesn’t itch or hurt, but it can be accompanied by general flu-like symptoms, including:
More sores can also show up during the secondary syphilis phase. The rash and flu-like symptoms can go away after a few weeks, but they might continue to come and go over the next two years without treatment.
Still left untreated, syphilis can progress to its late stage. Untreated syphilis may reach other parts of the body during this stage, including the central nervous system. In severe cases, people may experience vision loss or paralysis. The infection can contribute to the formation of tumors or damage the organs. While treatment can cure syphilis, it can’t reverse the damage done by the infection, which is why it’s so important to get treated as soon as possible before untreated syphilis progresses.
More on STDs: Discover the Signs and Symptoms of Hepatitis C in Women
The main problem with syphilis is that it can be hard to detect until it’s too late, which is why it’s important to get tested if you are sexually active. You can get tested by your healthcare provider or in a clinic, or you can use an at-home test, like the Everlywell STD test for women and STD Test for men, which tests for syphilis and six other common STDs. This comprehensive test checks for gonorrhea, HIV, chlamydia, and several other infections. Make sure that your partner also gets tested and treated.