Syphilis is a highly contagious sexually transmitted disease (STD). Fortunately the contagious stages are only in the first two days of infection, however if the disease progresses to the secondary stage (which will be explained later, then again it becomes highly contagious). This disease is not very common, but if left untreated, consequences are horrific, and in some cases can be fatal.

So what is it?

Syphilis is caused by a spiral-shaped micro-organism called Treponema pallidum. This organism which causes syphilis, begins by creating a hard painless sore called a 'chancre' which develops on first contact with the infection. There are three stages in this disease: primary, secondary, and tertiary.

Primary stage

It takes a few hours for the micro-organisms to penetrate the skin or mucous membrane, before they enter the bloodstream and usually within a week have spread throughout the body. The first symptom of contracting the disease is when the chancre (the sore) appears; this can be between 9 days to 3 weeks (however the average time is usually about 2 weeks). Chancres will tend to appear on the genitals, and occasionally appear on the lips, they can also appear anywhere on the body, but this is less likely. This sore will usually disappear without symptoms within a few weeks.


Firm/hard chancre resembling a blister, pimple, ulcerated sore.
In men, on or near the head of the penis.
In women, labia or concealed inside the vagina.
Both sexes - these can be located on the lips, a breast, finger, or anal area.
If no treatment is given the chancre will disappear within 10-40 days (often in this time the person thinks they are cured, or sometimes the chancre is so small it goes unnoticed).


At the primary stage, penicillin and adequate doses of antibiotics will cure the infection without any complications occurring.

Secondary stage

This stage can occur after two to six months after the primary sore disappears. This stage may last up to two years. In this stage the organism has spread throughout the body, which causes in most cases a generalised rash to appear, this rash does not itch, but can resemble rashes such as measles. The rash may appear over the entire body including the soles of the feet and palms of the hands. This may also be accompanied by mouth ulcers, which are infectious, as the ulcers are full of micro-organisms. During this stage the person infected may have swollen lymph nodes. At this point the only way to test for this infection is by blood test.

Other symptoms include:
White sores around the genitalia and / or mouth
A general feeling of illness
Hair may fall out in patches
Joint and bone soreness may occur
Sometimes the eyes are effected.

It is important to add that during this phase when these symptoms appear, this disease is highly contagious. If there are sores in the mouth, the disease can be passed on by simply kissing.

Just as primary syphilis, this condition may last from 3 to 12 weeks, but may return later if the organisms are still present.


Just as in primary syphilis the use of penicillin and other antibiotics are needed to eradicate this infection. At this point no permanent damage should occur.

Tertiary syphilis

The symptoms may develop soon after the occurrence of secondary syphilis, or it may lie hidden for up to 15 years if not treated in the early stages. The person may be unaware that they have the infection and even a blood may show a negative result. Tertiary syphilis is less contagious than secondary. But for the individual carrying this disease it can be fatal, particularly if the heart or central nervous system is affected. If left untreated complications such as:

Fatal heart disorders
Brain damage
Damage to bones
Damage to skin
If pregnant this disease can be passed on to the foetus
Other internal vital organs in the body may be affected
Blindness may result if the eyes are affected
There are various other complications that are extremely nasty that can result from this disease, and can be discussed with your doctor if you have a positive test result.


Curing late/tertiary syphilis can be much more difficult and take longer than secondary and primary syphilis; again it is treated (aggressively with penicillin, along with other antibiotics). However at this stage, unfortunately the disease cannot always be completely cured. And in many cases damage to vital organs cannot be reversed.


As this is such a complicated infection, it is difficult to give sound advice on preventing the infection of this disease. Knowing the fact about it can help, as you can look for the symptoms in the person you are with, such as a sore on the genitals, or a rash over their body. It is difficult to attain whether the person you are kissing has mouth ulcers. I can only suggest that if you are concerned about staying healthy, don't sleep with a person until you know a bit about their lifestyle and sexual history. And always use condoms, they may not only protect you from some degree from syphilis, but also from other potential STDs that are out there.

- Louise Ganey