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Syphilis Basics

Here are the CDC's answers to common questions about syphilis. Find more questions and answers in Syphilis—CDC Fact Sheet and Syphilis MSM (Men Who Have Sex With Men)—CDC Fact Sheet.

  • Syphilis is an STD that can have very serious complications when left untreated.
  • Syphilis is easy to cure in its early stages.
  • Pregnant women should be tested regularly for syphilis because infection with syphilis can cause serious problems in a baby.
  • In 2012, 75% of the reported primary and secondary (P&S) syphilis cases were among men who have sex with men (MSM).

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is an STD that can cause long-term complications and/or death if not treated correctly. Symptoms in adults are divided into stages. These stages are primary, secondary, latent, and late syphilis.

How is syphilis spread?

You can get syphilis by direct contact with a syphilis sore during anal, vaginal, or oral sex. Sores can be found on the penis, vagina, anus, in the rectum, or on the lips and in the mouth. Syphilis can also be spread from an infected mother to her unborn baby.

What does syphilis look like?

Syphilis has been called “the great imitator” because it has so many possible symptoms, many of which look like symptoms from other diseases. The painless syphilis sore that you would get after you are first infected can be confused for an ingrown hair, zipper cut, or other seemingly harmless bump. The non-itchy body rash that develops during the second stage of syphilis can show up on the palms of your hands and soles of your feet, all over your body, or in just a few places. You could also be infected with syphilis and have very mild symptoms or none at all.

How can I avoid getting syphilis?

You can protect yourself from getting syphilis by:

  • Not having sex.
  • Being in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and has negative STD test results.
  • Using latex condoms and dental dams the right way every time you have sex.

Washing your genitals, urinating, or douching after sex will not protect you from getting syphilis.

Can syphilis be cured?

Yes, syphilis can be cured with the right antibiotics from your health care provider. However, treatment will not undo any damage that the infection has already done.