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Syphilis is a highly-contagious sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It is spread primarily through sexual activity, including oral, vaginal and anal sex, although an individual can contract syphilis through prolonged kissing and bodily contact with an infected person. Young adults aged 15 to 25 are the most likely to contract it.


The disease is spread via sores, which develop in the primary (first) stages of syphilis, but these often go undetected or are mistaken for a cut or ulcer. People who have syphilis may not know they're infected and can unknowingly infect others, as the initial sores are painless.

Untreated syphilis may cause long-term complications, including blindness, brain damage and dementia. Pregnant women with the disease risk spreading it to their babies, resulting in birth abnormalities, stillbirth or death of the baby shortly after birth.

What are its symptoms?

Syphilis is divided into stages, each one presenting with a set of symptoms:

  1. Primary syphilis: The early symptoms of syphilis include the development of one or more sores in the form of small, painless ulcers that occur in or on the genitals, anus and in or around the mouth after an average of three weeks after exposure.
  2. Secondary syphilis: This stage lasts from one to three months and starts within six weeks to six months of exposure. It presents with a rash described as a ‘copper penny’ rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, but other kinds of rash may also appear on other parts of the body. Further symptoms include warts in the groin area, white patches on the inside of the mouth, swollen lymph nodes, weight loss and fever.
  3. Late syphilis: If syphilis infection is not treated, it may progress to this stage, also called tertiary syphilis, which is characterised by severe problems associated with the heart, brain and nervous system, and can result in paralysis, blindness, deafness, impotence, dementia and even death.

How is it diagnosed?

A syphilis diagnosis can be made with a simple blood test that can be performed at your health clinic or doctor’s office. Fluid from a syphilis sore may also be drawn for testing. If there are neurological symptoms, a doctor may do a lumbar puncture to test for syphilis in the cerebro-spinal fluid.

What are your treatment options?

The first and secondary stages of syphilis are curable with medical treatment. If you don’t seek treatment to prevent the disease progressing to the tertiary stage it may not be curable and can cause organ damage, dementia, paralysis and even death.

If the individual has been infected for less than a year, treatment consists of a single dose of penicillin and for those who are allergic to penicillin, antibiotics such as tetracycline or doxycycline can be administered. If the disease is at its later stages, more doses may be required.

Take note that treatment will, however, not undo any damage that the infection may have already caused.

Those being treated for syphilis should abstain from sexual contact until the infection is cleared, and sexual partners of the infected individual need to be tested for the disease.

Follow-up blood tests need to be done to ensure that the infection is gone.

Can it be prevented?

Syphilis can be prevented by abstaining from vaginal, anal and oral sex. If you are sexually active, the following precautions can reduce your risk of becoming infected:

  • Being in a mutually monogamous relationship where both partners have been tested and received negative results for the STD.
  • Using a condom in the correct manner every time you engage in sexual activity, including oral sex. Condoms can act as a barrier to the syphilis sores that spread the disease. However, be aware that sores may be present in areas not covered with a condom, that is, in the mouth, and the disease can still be transmitted.

How Clicks Clinics can help you

Unprotected sex increases your risk of contracting HIV/AIDS too. Clicks offers HIV testing and counselling at our clinics, call 0860 254 257 or book with Clicks Clinics online to make an appointment.

HIV home test kits are available for purchase online and in-store.

Shop online at Clicks.co.za for condoms

Don't be caught unawares – rather stock up on condoms via the convenience of online shopping so that you can ensure you're practising safe sex at all times.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in January 2017