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Department of Health Services

Public Health Division

Syphilis

Why should you care about syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can cause serious health problems if it is not treated. Syphilis and other STDs are increasing across the country and in Sonoma County. Untreated syphilis can damage the heart, blood vessels, brain, nervous system and many other organs. Pregnant women with syphilis can pass the infection to their baby which can seriously harm the baby’s health.

Syphilis can be treated and cured by a health care provider.

How does syphilis spread?

  • Sex: direct contact with a syphilis sore during vaginal, anal or oral sex.
  • Pregnancy: from an infected mother to her unborn baby during pregnancy.

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

Syphilis is divided into four stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary.

Primary: Initially, syphilis causes painless sores called "chancres" which eventually go away. Sores are usually in or around genitals or mouth. 

Syphilis Primary stage sore chancre on tongue
Primary stage: sore/chancre on tongue

Secondary: Secondary syphilis often causes a rash which is not itchy or painful, often on the hands and/or feet. It can also cause mucous membrane lesions. Sometimes there can be fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue. These symptoms eventually go away.

Syphilis Secondary stage mucous membrane lesions on tongue
Secondary stage: mucous membrane lesions on tongue

Syphilis Secondary stage rash on palms of hands and soles of feet
Secondary stage: rash on palms of hands and soles of feet

  • Latent: There are no visible signs of symptoms of syphilis. However, if you do not receive treatment you can continue to have syphilis in your body and the infection could progress to the tertiary stage.
  • Tertiary: Untreated syphilis can go on to damage the heart, blood vessels, brain, nervous system or other organs in the body.
  • Syphilis can only be diagnosed, treated and cured by a health care provider.

If you think you may have syphilis, get tested.

To get tested, visit your primary care provider.

If you do not have a provider, contact a community clinic in Sonoma County for testing information:

STI testing is also available at these locations:

How can you prevent syphilis?

The only way to avoid STIs including syphilis is to not have vaginal, anal or oral sex.

If you are sexually active, you can lower your chances of getting syphilis by:

  • Staying in a long-term monogamous relationship with someone who has been tested recently and does not have syphilis;
  • Using latex condoms, the right way, every time you have sex. Condoms prevent spread by preventing contact with a sore. Sometimes sores occur in areas not covered by a condom. Contact with these sores can still transmit syphilis.

All women who are pregnant should be tested for syphilis and get treatment if they test positive.

For more information

  • Syphilis
    Source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Syphilis
    Source: California Department of Public Health.