For Teens: Understanding Syphilis

Teen girl talking to healthcare provider in exam room.

Syphilis spreads through any kind of sexual contact. That is vaginal sex, anal sex, or oral sex. This sexually transmitted infection (STI) has 3 stages. It gets worse with each stage. Syphilis can be cured. But early treatment is important. Left alone, it can cause lasting damage, like blindness. Syphilis can even cause death.

What to look for

First-stage symptoms often show up within a few weeks of catching syphilis. It may take months for second-stage symptoms to appear.

During the first stage, you may have:

  • A painless sore in or on the mouth, genitals, or anus. The sore often goes away on its own within a few weeks. Even if it goes away by itself, you will still need treatment. You can still transmit the infection to others.

During the second stage, you may have:  

  • A body rash that includes the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet

  • Flu-like symptoms, such as a fever, sore throat, and headache

A blood test is often done to test for syphilis. Sometimes, fluid from a syphilis sore will be tested.

Syphilis and pregnancy

During pregnancy, untreated syphilis can infect the developing fetus. It can cause a range of birth defects, some severe. This is called congenital syphilis. It is very important to be checked for syphilis before or during early pregnancy. The CDC advises that all pregnant women get tested for syphilis at their first prenatal visit. Congenital syphilis cases are increasing across the country. So many states now require syphilis testing during pregnancy and sometimes at birth.

Treatment

Syphilis can often be cured with antibiotics. These medicines may be given as a shot, by mouth (pill), or into a vein (IV). In later stages, treatment is harder. It may be needed for damage that syphilis causes in the body.

If you are told that you have syphilis, make sure your partner gets checked. And don’t have sex until your healthcare provider says it’s OK.

If you don’t get treated

Syphilis can stay in the body for years. During the third stage, syphilis can make you very sick. It can cause:

  • Damage to the brain, nerves, and heart. Some damage can’t be reversed, even with treatment.

  • Blindness

  • Death

Tell your partner

It’s important to talk with your partner about STIs and testing. If you don't feel safe talking face-to-face with your partner about testing, send a text or email. Or make a phone call instead. Ask someone for help if you’re not safe.

Also ask your partner if they have an STI or if they’ve been tested. Think about getting tested if one of you isn’t sure. If your partner does have an STI, encourage your partner to get treated. Otherwise he or she can pass the infection back to you or on to others.

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Donna Freeborn PhD CNM FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2020
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