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Syphilis Symptoms and Signs

Stages of Syphilis

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Updated April 03, 2014

Signs and Symptoms of Syphilis for Men

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by Treponema pallidum –- a specific type of bacteria called a spirochete. Syphilis is characterized by four stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. Each stage of syphilis has characteristic symptoms, but any particular sign may or may not be present.

After becoming infected with syphilis, there is an incubation period between 9 and 90 days (the average being around 21 days) before the first signs and symptoms of the disease appear.

Signs and Symptoms of Primary Syphilis

The primary stage of syphilis typically begins with a sore (called a "chancre") on the skin that's initially exposed to the infection -- usually the genitals, rectum or mouth. The sore has been described as feeling like a button: firm, round, usually measuring half an inch across, and not tender to the touch. Swelling of the lymph nodes in the groin may occur, but the nodes are not usually tender.

Infected individuals do not usually feel ill in the primary stage of syphilis, and the chancre heals spontaneously after 4 to 6 weeks. This is a problem because the syphilis has not gone away: syphilis continues to spread throughout the body.

 

Signs and Symptoms of Secondary Syphilis

From the primary stage, the disease moves into the secondary stage of syphilis. Secondary syphilis can often occur several weeks after the chancre heals, once the bacteria have spread through the body. An individual may feel sick; common symptoms include headache, achiness, loss of appetite and maybe rash.

The rash in secondary syphilis is usually reddish-brown in color, not itchy and widespread. But the appearance of the rash's individual lesions can vary dramatically: they may be flat or raised, they may or may not be scaly, and pustules may or may not be present. It's partially due to the variability of this rash that led to syphilis being called "the great imitator," because it can resemble many other conditions. The rash can last for a few weeks or months.

Other symptoms of secondary syphilis include sores in the mouth, nose, throat, and on the genitals or folds of the skin. Lymph node swelling is common, and patchy hair loss can occur. All signs and symptoms of the second stage of syphilis will disappear without treatment in 3 weeks to 9 months, but the infection will still be present in the body.

 

Signs and Symptoms of Latent Syphilis

The latent stage of syphilis, which occurs after the symptoms of secondary syphilis have disappeared, can last from a few years to up to 50 years! There are no symptoms in this stage, and after about two years, an infected man may cease to be contagious. However, a man in the latent stage of syphilis is still infected, and the disease can be diagnosed by a blood test. During the latent stage, a pregnant woman can transmit syphilis to her fetus.

 

Signs and Symptoms of Tertiary Syphilis

The final stage of syphilis, which occurs in about one third of those who are not treated, is known as the tertiary stage. Many organs may be affected. Common symptoms include fever; painful, non-healing skin ulcers; bone pain; liver disease; and anemia. Tertiary syphilis can also affect the nervous system (resulting in the loss of mental functioning) and the aorta (resulting in heart disease).

 

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