Stigma-Free Health Care in New England

Syphilis 101: What You Need to Know About This STI


Syphilis 101: What You Need to Know About This STI

Understanding Syphilis

Often dubbed “the great imitator,” syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that can mimic many other illnesses. Here’s what you need to know:

What Is Syphilis?

The bacterium Treponema pallidum causes it. Despite being one of the oldest known STIs, its chameleon-like ability to resemble other diseases keeps it prevalent.

How Is It Transmitted?

Sexual contact, including oral, anal, and vaginal sex, primarily transmits syphilis. A mother can also pass it to her child during pregnancy, resulting in congenital syphilis.

Signs and Symptoms

Initial symptoms can be subtle, such as a painless ulceration or sore at the infection site. Depending on the location of the ulceration (inside the rectum or mouth), you may not even know it’s there. The ulceration heals on it’s own within 2-6 of the onset of the infection.  Without treatment, it can progress, affecting various body organs and causing serious health issues.

The Stages of Syphilis

Syphilis progresses in stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. Each stage presents different symptoms, from sores to skin rashes to serious cardiovascular and neurological effects.

Why Early Detection Matters

Early detection and treatment can cure the infection and prevent long-term health problems. Regular screenings are crucial for those at risk.


There are many myths surrounding syphilis, such as it being a disease of the past or easily identifiable based on symptoms. Education is key to debunking these myths and promoting prevention.

Prevention Strategies

When it comes to warding off STIs, being proactive is your best bet. Here’s how to keep yourself in the clear:

Safer Sex Practices

Embracing condoms or dental dams during sexual encounters significantly slashes your risk. And here’s a pro tip: Doxy PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis with doxycycline) is emerging as a game-changer. Taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex, it’s shown promise in preventing syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea in high-risk scenarios. It’s like an extra safety net, offering peace of mind alongside traditional methods.

The Importance of Communication

Having a heart-to-heart about STIs might seem awkward but is absolutely critical. It’s all about ensuring mutual safety and care in the relationship.

Regular STI Screenings

Make STI screenings a part of your routine healthcare. Catching syphilis or any other STI early can lead to simpler, more effective treatment.

Vaccination and Syphilis: What’s the Link?

While no vaccine specifically targets syphilis, keeping up with other vaccinations supports overall health and resilience against infections.

Partner Notification and Treatment

Found out you’re positive? Looping in your partners for testing and treatment can halt the spread. It’s a tough convo but one worth having for everyone’s health.

The Role of Public Health Campaigns

Awareness campaigns shed light on syphilis prevention and testing, breaking down myths and encouraging safer sex practices.Doxy PEP is a compelling addition to our prevention toolkit, offering an extra layer of protection after potential exposure.

Diagnosis and Testing

Knowing when to get tested and what the stages of syphilis involve can help manage and prevent the spread of this STI. Here’s a closer look:

When to Get Tested

If you’ve had condomless sex, multiple partners, or if your partner is syphilis-positive, consider testing. Routine screenings are vital for sexually active individuals to catch and treat syphilis early. Additionally, if a partner notifies you that you have been exposed to syphilis, taking a course of antibiotic can prevent the infection from taking hold in your body.

Types of Tests

Tests usually involve drawing blood, but if symptoms are visible, swabbing sores may be necessary. These methods aim to detect either the syphilis bacteria or antibodies your body has produced in response.

Understanding the Stages of Syphilis

Syphilis progresses through several stages, each with distinct symptoms:

  • Primary: Characterized by the appearance of a single or multiple painless sores, known as chancres, at the infection site.
  • Secondary: Symptoms may include rash, fever, swollen lymph nodes, and sore throat. These signs can be mild and mistaken for other illnesses.
  • Latent: The silent phase where symptoms disappear, but the bacteria remain in the body. It can last for years.
  • Tertiary: Occurring in 15-30% of untreated cases, this stage can cause severe damage to the heart, brain, and other organs.

Preparing for Your Test

No special preparation is required. Just make an appointment with your healthcare provider, who will guide you through the process.

Interpreting Test Results

A positive result indicates an active infection, necessitating treatment. Usually, a negative result means you don’t have syphilis, but healthcare professionals might recommend follow-up tests.

Confidentiality in Testing

Your testing results are confidential, protected by privacy laws, ensuring your personal health information is secure. If you’re worried about inadvertent disclosures to people in your household, you can also get tested for syphilis without using your health insurance benefits.

What If You Test Positive?

Discovering you have syphilis early means it’s entirely treatable with antibiotics. Your healthcare provider will discuss treatment options based on the stage of the infection.

Understanding syphilis stages is crucial for effective treatment and prevention.

Treatment Options

Syphilis, when caught early, can be completely cured with the right approach. Here’s what you need to know about tackling this infection head-on:

The Basics of Treatment

Treatment usually involves antibiotics, typically penicillin, which is highly effective at killing the bacterium causing syphilis. The type and duration of treatment depend on the stage of the infection.

Antibiotics: The First Line of Defense

  • Primary and Secondary Stages: A single intramuscular injection of penicillin is often enough to clear the infection.
  • Latent Stage: The treatment might require multiple doses, depending on how long you’ve had the infection.
  • Tertiary: More intensive treatment may be necessary, including additional doses of penicillin over a longer period.

Treatment Duration and Follow-Up

After completing your treatment, you must undergo regular follow-up blood tests to confirm the complete eradication of the infection and monitor for any recurrence.

Managing Side Effects

Although most individuals tolerate antibiotics well, some may experience side effects. Discussing any concerns with your healthcare provider is important.

Treatment for Pregnant Women

Pregnant women with syphilis can pass the infection to their unborn baby, leading to congenital syphilis. Penicillin is safe for use during pregnancy and is effective in preventing transmission to the baby.

Resistance and Treatment Failure

Though rare, treatment failure can occur. If symptoms persist or recur, further evaluation and treatment might be necessary.

Preventing Recurrence

After treatment, avoiding new infections is crucial. This includes practicing safer sex, regular STI screenings, and informing sexual partners about your syphilis history so they can also get tested and treated if necessary.

Treating the infection effectively means catching it early, adhering to the prescribed treatment, and following up as recommended by your healthcare provider. With these steps, you can overcome the infection and maintain your health.

The Local Perspective

Recent years have seen a concerning rise in syphilis infections in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, reflecting a nationwide trend. This increase can be attributed to a lack of awareness, changes in sexual behaviors facilitated by dating apps, and decreased emphasis on STI testing and prevention. Additionally, the challenge of anonymous encounters makes it difficult to trace and treat infections effectively. There’s a pressing need for robust public health efforts, better education on prevention, and broader access to testing and treatment to combat this resurgence. You can read more about the rising rates of syphilis in MA from this Boston Globe article. Here is an link to an article from NPR published in January 2024 elucidating the rising rates of syphilis nationally.

The Global Perspective

Addressing syphilis requires a lens that spans beyond local and national boundaries, considering its impact on a global scale. Here’s an exploration of syphilis from a worldwide viewpoint:

Syphilis Incidence Worldwide

Globally, syphilis remains a significant public health issue, with millions of new cases occurring each year. Developing countries often bear the brunt due to limited access to healthcare and STI screening programs.

Challenges in Syphilis Control

Efforts to control syphilis worldwide face numerous obstacles, including stigma, lack of public awareness, and insufficient healthcare infrastructure. These challenges hamper early diagnosis and treatment, crucial for prevention.

Innovations in Treatment and Prevention

Advancements in diagnostic tools and treatment options, alongside increased emphasis on preventive measures, offer hope. Programs targeting maternal syphilis to prevent congenital cases are examples of successful interventions.

The Importance of Global Health Initiatives

International collaborations and funding are pivotal in combating syphilis, especially in resource-limited settings. Organizations like the WHO play a vital role in spearheading these efforts.

Success Stories in Syphilis Reduction

Certain regions have seen declines in syphilis rates through concerted public health campaigns, proving that progress is possible with dedicated efforts.

Future Directions in Syphilis Research

Ongoing research into vaccines, more effective treatments, and innovative diagnostic methods is essential. The quest to eradicate this infection hinges on these scientific advancements and global cooperation.

The global perspective on syphilis highlights the complexity of tackling this STI worldwide but also showcases the potential for significant strides through concerted effort and innovation.


At Pathway To Better Health, we’re at the forefront of combating syphilis, an STI that has seen a concerning resurgence in places like Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Understanding syphilis, from its transmission and stages to its treatment and prevention, is crucial for anyone looking to maintain their sexual health. Our comprehensive approach ensures that individuals diagnosed with this infection receive the care, support, and treatment they need to overcome this infection.

From the initial diagnosis through the treatment process, we emphasize the importance of open communication, regular testing, and adherence to treatment protocols. Living with a sexually transmitted infection can be challenging, but with the right support and medical care, individuals can lead healthy lives. Furthermore, our commitment extends beyond individual care, advocating for greater public health initiatives and global efforts to curb the spread of syphilis.

As syphilis rates rise, both locally and globally, the need for accessible, compassionate healthcare services has never been more critical. Pathway To Better Health stands ready to support our community with state-of-the-art treatments, preventive strategies, and a judgment-free environment. Together, we can tackle this infection head-on, ensuring a healthier future for all.

If you’re seeking a healthcare partner who truly cares about your well-being and is equipped to help you navigate the challenges of syphilis, Contact us today!


What is syphilis?

The bacterium Treponema pallidum causes syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. It progresses through several stages and can cause serious health issues if left untreated.

How can I prevent it?

Preventing syphilis involves practicing safer sex, such as using condoms during sexual activity, undergoing regular STI screenings, and considering preventive measures like Doxy PEP for high-risk individuals.

Can it be cured?

Yes, appropriate antibiotic treatment, typically penicillin, can cure the infection. The treatment plan varies depending on the infection stage, but early diagnosis and treatment can lead to a complete cure.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Syphilis signs include a painless sore at the infection site (primary stage), rash and flu-like symptoms (secondary stage), no symptoms (latent stage), and serious health problems affecting the heart, brain, or other organs (tertiary stage).

How often should I get tested?

If you’re sexually active, particularly with multiple partners or if you have condomless sex, you should undergo syphilis testing at least annually. We recommend more frequent testing for those at higher risk.

Can it be transmitted non-sexually?

While sexual contact primarily transmits syphilis, an infected mother can also pass it to her baby during pregnancy, causing congenital syphilis.

What should I do if I test positive?

If you test positive for syphilis, it’s important to start treatment immediately and notify any sexual partners so they can also get tested and treated if necessary. Follow-up care is crucial to ensure the infection is fully resolved.

These FAQs aim to address common concerns about syphilis, offering insights into prevention, treatment, and the importance of regular testing. If you have more questions or need to schedule a consultation, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.