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Syphilis

Syphilis is a bacterial infection. The disease affects your genitals, skin and mucous membranes, but it may also involve many other parts of your body, including your brain and your heart.

The signs and symptoms of syphilis may occur in four stages — primary, secondary, latent and tertiary. There's also a condition known as congenital syphilis, which occurs when a pregnant woman with syphilis passes the disease to her unborn infant. Congenital syphilis can be disabling, even life-threatening, so it's important for a pregnant woman with syphilis to be treated.

Primary

These signs may occur from 10 days to three months after exposure:

  • A small, painless sore (chancre) on the part of your body where the infection was transmitted, usually your genitals, rectum, tongue or lips. A single chancre is typical, but there may be multiple sores.
  • Enlarged lymph nodes.

Signs and symptoms of primary syphilis typically disappear without treatment, but the underlying disease remains and may reappear in the second (secondary) or third (tertiary) stage.

Secondary

Signs and symptoms of secondary syphilis may begin two to 10 weeks after the chancre appears, and may include:

  • Rash marked by red or reddish-brown, penny-sized sores over any area of your body, including your palms and soles
  • Fever
  • Fatigue and a vague feeling of discomfort
  • Soreness and aching

These signs and symptoms may disappear within a few weeks or repeatedly come and go for as long as a year.

Latent

In some people, a period called latent syphilis — in which no symptoms are present — may follow the secondary stage. Signs and symptoms may never return, or the disease may progress to the tertiary stage.

Tertiary

Without treatment, syphilis bacteria may spread, leading to serious internal organ damage and death years after the original infection.

Some of the signs and symptoms of tertiary syphilis include:

  • Neurological problems. These may include stroke and infection and inflammation of the membranes and fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meningitis). Other problems may include poor muscle coordination, numbness, paralysis, deafness or visual problems. Personality changes and dementia also are possible.
  • Cardiovascular problems. These may include bulging (aneurysm) and inflammation of the aorta — your body's major artery — and of other blood vessels. Syphilis may also cause valvular heart disease, such as aortic valve problems.

If you suspect you have an STI, see your doctor

If you suspect you have these or other STIs or that you may have been exposed to one, see your doctor for STI testing. Timely diagnosis and treatment are important to avoid or delay more-severe, potentially life-threatening health problems and to avoid infecting others.

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