About syphilis

Syphilis can cause a number of symptoms common to other diseases. Therefore, it is better to be informed than to contribute to the spread of the infection!


Sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBI) threaten health and well-being. Syphilis is among these diseases. It is caused by the Treponema pallidum bacteria. The number of syphilis cases has increased since the beginning of the 2000s, particularly in homosexual men. The number of infected women of childbearing age has also increased since 2009.

How is the disease transmitted?

Syphilis is most often sexually transmitted or, in some rare cases, transmitted through shared drug injection paraphernalia. An infected mother can transmit syphilis to her baby during pregnancy or childbirth. An affected baby can present:

  • partial vision loss
  • hearing loss, and
  • bone and dental deformities

The disease can also cause premature birth, miscarriage or foetal death.

Sexual transmission can occur through:

  • oral contact with the penis, vulva, vagina or anus
  • penal penetration of the vagina or anus
  • genital contact between partners
  • direct skin contact with lesions of an infected person
  • sharing of sex toys

The risk of transmission is higher during the first year of the disease. In addition, syphilis can increase the risk of contacting or spreading HIV.

The progression of symptoms

Some individuals can present symptoms of the disease unbeknownst to them. If unprotected intercourse has occurred, exercise great vigilance and consult a healthcare professional if there is any doubt.

The progression of the disease typically follows four stages:

  • primary
  • secondary
  • latent, and
  • tertiary

In the primary stage, the appearance of one or several ulcers, called chancres, are observed. Chancres appear in the area where bacteria entered the body, generally on the genitals, mouth, throat or anus. Lymph nodes in the groin can become swollen. Chancres are painless and can go unnoticed. They sometimes appear up to three months after infection by the bacteria; they disappear on their own after three to eight weeks. However, the bacteria remains present in the body and can be transmitted.

In the secondary stage (up to six months after infection by the bacteria), other symptoms can manifest themselves, including the following:

  • fever
  • headache
  • fatigue
  • muscle pain
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • patchy hair loss
  • greyish-white lesions on the genitals or inside the mouth, and
  • redness on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet or elsewhere on the body

These symptoms also disappear on their own after a few weeks.

In the latent stage, the infected person has no symptoms even though the bacteria is still present in the body and can be transmitted. This stage can last for several years. Finally, in the tertiary stage, the infection is no longer contagious. However, it is at this stage that the following complications are observed:

  • heart
  • brain
  • bones, and
  • liver

These complications can appear from 5 to 30 years after the chancres have disappeared. Without treatment, syphilis can cause death.

Screening and treatment

Anyone who has had unprotected intercourse should consider being tested via a blood test. You may feel uncomfortable broaching the subject. Rest assured that your healthcare professional will address it professionally and confidentially, and without judgment.

In the event of a positive result, it is crucial to inform all of your sexual partners or anyone you have shared syringes with. Treatment must be started promptly. Antibiotics will provide complete recovery if the infection is treated at the primary or secondary stage. However, complications that occur at the tertiary stage can be permanent.

Medications to treat syphilis are obtained by prescription. They are free of charge for individuals who have a valid health insurance card. The first line of treatment is penicillin. It is usually administered in a single dose by injection. An acute febrile reaction can occur approximately two hours following the injection. Your pharmacist can recommend medications adapted to your medical history for fever. In the case of an allergy or intolerance, an antibiotic in tablet form will be administered for several days. It is crucial to take all of the prescribed doses. Your pharmacist will inform you on the optimal way to take them.


The antibiotic treatment's full effect is not immediate. The infected person remains contagious for some time. To prevent reinfection or the spread of syphilis, it is advisable to abstain from all sexual activity:

  • until the end of treatment, if the medication administered is in tablet form
  • until seven days after the end of treatment by injection
  • until symptoms have completely disappeared

If abstinence is not possible, individuals under treatment can protect themselves with a condom (male or female) for the entire duration of each sexual relationship. They can also use a dental dam or a square of latex, obtained from a nonlubricated condom, to cover the vulva or anus during oral contact with these parts of the body. Your pharmacist can provide information on the products available and how they should be used.

It is important to follow up with your doctor to confirm that the infection has healed. It goes without saying that the use of a condom is recommended as long as any doubt remains.

Syphilis can remain undetected for many years. To prevent the spread and complications associated to it, practise safe sex. When it comes to STBBIs, it isn't simply a question of your own health, but also that of your partners.


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About syphilis

Syphilis can cause a number of symptoms common to other diseases. Therefore, it is better to be informed than to contribute to the spread of the infection!
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