Some people with syphilis have no symptoms at all, so you may not know you have it unless you get tested. There are 4 stages of syphilis infection: primary, secondary, latent and tertiary.
The signs and symptoms of syphilis depend on the stage of disease.
Primary syphilis occurs 3 or 4 weeks after infection (although it can take up to 90 days for the sore to appear). Symptoms may include a single painless sore usually about a centimetre big at the site where the infection entered the body — such as on the penis, vagina, cervix, mouth or anus. There may also be swollen lymph nodes.
The sore, or sometimes multiple sores, can go unnoticed because it is usually painless and may be hidden from view in areas like the back of the throat, vagina or anus.
These sores usually go away by themselves after 3 to 6 weeks, even with no treatment. But, even though the sore heals, if you haven’t been treated you are still infectious and can pass it on to others.
Secondary syphilis can occur 7 to 10 weeks after the initial infection. Symptoms can last for 6 months or more and these may include:
- a red rash on the palms, soles, chest or back
- enlarged glands in the armpits and groin
- sore throat
- hair loss
- weight loss
- pain in the bones, muscles and joints
- ulcers in the mouth, nasal cavity or genitals
- neurological symptoms
Latent (sleeping) syphilis generally has no symptoms and it is only picked up on blood tests. If syphilis is not treated at this stage it can remain latent or develop into tertiary syphilis.
Tertiary syphilis can appear anywhere from 5 to 20 years after primary infection. At this stage, the bacteria can damage almost any part of the body including the heart, brain, spinal cord, eyes and bones, resulting in heart disease, mental illness, blindness, deafness and neurological problems.
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about syphilis, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
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Last reviewed: May 2019