The LGBT Health & Development Program

Youth Blog–Syphilis on the Rise: What Do You Need to Know?

Posted on November 24th, 2015 by Krystal in Featured, Sexual Health, Youth Blog. No Comments

vintage poster with dinosaur and message, "As old as creation, syphilis is now curable."

WPA Federal Art Project, “As old as creation Syphilis is now curable: Consult your physician,” 1936 or 1937.

Syphilis was once one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the US. By low estimates, 10% of Americans were infected in the early 1900s, but syphilis became less common after a medicine called penicillin was introduced in 1943 [1,2]. By 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had launched a national plan to eliminate syphilis [3]. Unfortunately, the plan was unsuccessful. Syphilis is now on the rise.

The CDC recently reported that the rate of syphilis has increased yearly since 2001 and is the highest rate since 1994 [4]. Men who have sex with men (MSM) are particularly affected by syphilis. Of nearly 20,000 infections reported in 2014, 83% of cases were among MSM [4]. The highest rates were among black men and men 20-29 years old [4].

These numbers can be scary, but you can protect yourself! Here are some basic facts and tips for staying healthy.

The Basics

Syphilis is a bacterial STI that can be treated and cured. Syphilis is spread through contact with a sore called a chancre during oral, vaginal, or anal sex. Syphilis can also be passed to a baby from an infected mother. Left untreated, syphilis can cause serious problems and increase your risk for HIV infection.


Symptoms occur in three stages: primary, secondary, and latent/late stages. Symptoms of syphilis usually appear about three weeks after infection. In the primary stage there is typically a single chancre that appears at the site of infection. It is firm, round, and painless. The sore lasts a few weeks before healing. Although the sore will heal, you need treatment to avoid secondary syphilis. Untreated syphilis also increases HIV risk because sores may allow HIV to enter your body more easily.

During secondary syphilis, a non-itchy rash usually appears on the palms of hands and the bottoms of feet. The rash will clear on its own, but you will move into the latent stage of syphilis without treatment.

Latent syphilis begins when all symptoms go away. Latent syphilis can last for years if left untreated. After one year, it is called late latent syphilis. During this stage, internal organs may be damaged and cause paralysis, heart disease, and even death.

Syphilis is often called ‘the great imitator’ because there are many possible symptoms which look like symptoms of other infections. To learn about symptoms not described here, visit the CDC’s syphilis page.

palms of hands with rash

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Rash on the palms of both hands due to secondary syphilis”, May 2013


The only way to completely avoid syphilis is to not have oral, vaginal, or anal sex. If you are sexually active, use latex condoms to lower your risk. Even with condoms, you can get syphilis if you come in contact with sores not covered by condoms during sex.

You can also reduce your risk by encouraging sex partners to be tested and treated for STIs.


Treatment is usually a single shot of penicillin. If you believe you may be infected with syphilis, find a local healthcare provider for testing and treatment.

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[1] Jabbour, N. (2000). Syphilis from 1880 to 1920: A Public Health Nightmare and the First Challenge to Medical Ethics. Essays in History, 42. Retrieved from

[2] Frith, J. (2012).Syphilis – Its Early History and Treatment until Penicillin, and the Debate on its Origins. Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health, 20(4), 49 – 58.

[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1999). The National Plan to Eliminate Syphilis from the United States. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2014. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


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