Early syphilis is easy to miss. Many people show no sign that they’re infected. Syphilis can make some people feel very ill, especially the ‘secondary stage’ with a rash and fever. The third stage can develop many years after picking up the infection and can have very serious health consequences. It is best avoided by getting tested and treated. The best way to know if you have syphilis is to get tested.
There are three stages to syphilis infection:
1. Primary Syphilis (Early Infectious Syphilis)
10 days to three months after you have been exposed a small, sore or ulcer (called a chancre) appears. The sore will appear on the part of your body where the infection was transmitted, typically the penis, anus, rectum, vagina, tongue or lips. Most people only have one sore, but some people have more. For many people, the sore is painless but not always. You may also experience swelling in your lymph glands (such as in the neck, groin or armpit). The sore will then disappear within two to six weeks and, if the condition is not treated, syphilis will move into its second stage.
2. Secondary Syphilis
The symptoms of secondary syphilis will begin a few weeks after the disappearance of the sore.
At this stage common symptoms include:
- a non-itchy skin rash appearing anywhere on the body, but commonly on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
- swollen lymph glands
- eye problems like pain or blurring of vision
These symptoms may disappear within a few weeks, or come and go over a period of months.
Syphilis will then move into a stage where you will experience no symptoms, even though you remain infected. This is called ‘latent syphilis’. You can still pass it on during the first year of this stage. However, after a couple of years, you cannot pass the infection to others, even though you remain infected.
The latent stage can continue for many years (even decades) after you first become infected. Without treatment, there is a risk that latent syphilis will move on to the most serious stage – tertiary syphilis.
3. Teritary Syphilis
The symptoms of tertiary syphilis will depend on what part of the body the infection spreads to. For example, it may affect the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, bones, skin or blood vessels, potentially causing a whole host of life limiting diseases.At this stage, untreated syphilis can be serious enough to cause death. This stage is best avoided by getting tested if you are at risk and getting treated early to avoid developing tertiary syphilis at a later stage, even many years later.