Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a type of bacteria known as Treponema pallidum. In 2016, more than 88,000 cases of syphilis were reported in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate of women with syphilis has been declining in the United States, but the rate among men, particularly men who have sex with men, has been rising.

The first sign of syphilis is a small, painless sore. It can appear on the sexual organs, rectum, or inside the mouth. This sore is called a chancre. People often fail to notice it right away.

Syphilis can be challenging to diagnose. Someone can have it without showing any symptoms for years. However, the earlier syphilis is discovered, the better. Syphilis that remains untreated for a long time can cause major damage to important organs, like the heart and brain.

Syphilis is only spread through direct contact with syphilitic chancres. It can’t be transmitted by sharing a toilet with another person, wearing another person’s clothing, or using another person’s eating utensils.

There are four stages of the disease: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary (also known as neurosyphilis). Primary syphilis is the first stage of the disease. It causes one or more small, painless sores in or around the genitals, anus, or mouth.

If you don’t get treatment for the primary stage of the disease, it may progress to the second stage, which is secondary syphilis. If you aren’t treated for secondary syphilis, the disease will likely progress to the latent stage, and may even progress to the tertiary stage.

The secondary stage of syphilis is curable with medical treatment. It’s important to get treatment to prevent the disease progressing to the tertiary stage, which may not be curable. It can cause damage to your organs, as well as dementia, paralysis, or even death.

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How to prevent getting secondary syphilis

You can prevent getting secondary syphilis by getting treatment for primary syphilis before it develops into the secondary stage. You can also prevent getting primary syphilis by practicing safe sex practices, such as using a condom. You should be regularly tested for syphilis and other STIs if you are sexually active and have unprotected sex or multiple partners.

People who should be regularly tested for syphilis include:

  • pregnant women
  • people who are at greater risk of syphilis (including men who have sex with men and people in prison)
  • people with HIV
  • people who have a sexual partner who has syphilis

If you notice any unusual sore or rash, especially near your genitals or anal area, stop having sex and go see a doctor. The earlier syphilis is caught, the easier it is to treat and the better your outcome. Notify all of your sexual partners immediately so that they can be treated as well. Syphilis is a very contagious disease.