• Caused by a type of bacteria called a spirochete;
  • An infection that affects the whole body, spreading through the blood stream;
  • An infection in which first symptoms show up at the point where the bacteria entered the body; usually the vagina, penis, anus, the lips and mouth.


Though syphilis can be a very serious disease if left untreated, it is not very common in Spokane.  Men who have sex with other men (MSM) may be at higher risk, particularly if they live in large cities, including Seattle.


Syphilis spreads when someone has direct contact with a syphilis sore. This painless sore is called a chancre (pronounced: (shaŋ-kər) and the fluid that oozes from them is very infectious. Contact with a sore usually happens during vaginal, anal or oral sex. If untreated during pregnancy, a mom can pass the infection to her baby during pregnancy.


Syphilis occurs in several different stages: Primary, Secondary, Latent and Late.

Primary Stage – 10-90 days after sex (usually 21 days), a painless single sore appears in the area where contact was made – the penis, anus, cervix, and mouth are common sites. The sore, called a chancre, usually feels hard at the edges. It does not hurt. The sore is full of germs. After 2 to 6 weeks, the sore goes away.

Secondary Stage – Six to 8 weeks later, the secondary stage begins. It can last from 2 weeks to 6 months. Signs include swelling of lymph nodes, rashes, and a flu-like feeling. There may be sores on the palms or the soles of the feet. These sores look like flat, grayish warts or they are white with red borders. Like other syphilis sores, they can spread the disease. These signs start to go away in about 2 weeks. Serious damage that can’t be seen or felt, happens at this point. The heart, nervous system, kidneys, eyes, and brain are targets.

Latent Stage – By this time, if a person still has not been to a doctor for testing and medical treatment, all the symptoms of the disease go away and the person is not contagious anymore.  However, the bacteria are still causing major damage, silently working through the body internally. The latent stage can last for years.

Late Stage – This final stage occurs in about 15% of untreated cases and can appear 10-20 years after they first got the infection. Symptoms of late syphilis can include difficulty walking, numbness, gradual blindness, paralysis, heart damage, brain damage and possibly even death. This stage is not contagious.


Syphilis can be found by a blood test. All pregnant women should be tested at least once for syphilis.  Another way of testing for syphilis is by testing fluid taken from sores that occur during the primary and secondary stages.


Syphilis is cured with special antibiotics, but the amount prescribed and the length of time the antibiotics must be taken depends on how long someone has been infected.  By the time a syphilis infection is considered to be in the late stage, medicine can prevent further health complications, but the damage the infection has already caused cannot be reversed.  An infected person needs to be treated as early as possible to best prevent extensive damage to their body.


The longer a person with Syphilis goes untreated, the more dangerous it can become to their health.  In the later stages of Syphilis, the disease can damage the internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. Late stage Syphilis can even cause death.  If a pregnant woman is untreated, her baby may die or have major birth defects.


If a healthcare provider diagnoses you with syphilis, take all treatment that is prescribed for or provided to you. You should also:

  • Contact your current and previous sex partner(s) so that they can get tested and treated if necessary. If you’re concerned about telling your previous or current partners, someone from the Spokane Regional Health District can notify them anonymously.  Call (509) 324-1494 to talk to a Health District employee who can help with this notification;
  • Avoid all sexual activity until you finish your medicine AND you’re sure that all sores are completely healed on you and your partner(s) – otherwise, you’re putting yourself at risk for getting syphilis again;
  • Most healthcare providers will also want you to be retested 6 and 12 months after you get treated, – some will want more frequent testing.  Even after you have taken all your medicine and the disease is cured, your blood may show that you had syphilis. Make sure to tell your healthcare provider if you have ever been treated for syphilis.


If you are pregnant and have been diagnosed with syphilis, it is especially important that you get treated. The infection can pass to the baby during pregnancy, which can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, or severe birth defects.  It can also be passed during birth if the baby comes into contact with an open sore on the mother.  Infants who get syphilis can develop a wide range of serious problems.  If left untreated in a baby, it can lead to seizures, delayed mental development and death.


The most effective way to avoid STDs, including Syphilis, is not to have sexual activity that involves sharing sexual fluids or intimate skin-to-skin contact.  If you choose to have sex, there are several things you can do to lower the risk of getting or passing the infection:

  • Use latex condoms correctly every time you have sex (including oral, vaginal and anal).  Click here for a demonstration on correct condom use. Remember that because condoms can’t cover the entire genital area, it’s still possible to be exposed and to expose others to syphilis;
  • Only have sexual contact with someone that you are sure is not or has not had sex with someone else and who has been tested to make sure they are disease free;
  • Limit the number of sex partners you have;
  • At any sign of symptoms, avoid sexual contact and get medical care.