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Syphilis is one of many sexually transmitted diseases caused by a bacterium -- in this case, Treponema pallidum. The disease is transmitted through direct contact with sores on the external genitals during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. There are four stages of progression, and without treatment, syphilis can ultimately lead to death. The most common treatment for the condition is the antibiotic penicillin.

What Is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum. The disease progresses in stages and, without treatment, can lead to death.

How Is It Transmitted?

Transmission occurs mainly from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore. Sores occur primarily on the external genitals, vagina, anus, or in the rectum. Sores can also occur on the lips and in the mouth. Syphilis can be transmitted during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. It can also be transmitted from an infected pregnant woman to her unborn child.

Stages of Syphilis

The four stages of syphilis include:
  • Primary
  • Secondary
  • Latent
  • Tertiary.

What Are the Symptoms?

Symptoms vary within each of these stages and within each individual. Syphilis is sometimes called "the great imitator" because it has so many possible symptoms and they are similar to those of many other diseases. Furthermore, many people infected with the disease do not have any symptoms for years, yet remain at risk for late complications if they are not treated.
Having an HIV infection at the same time can change the symptoms and course of the disease.
(Click Syphilis Symptoms for more information on the symptoms seen in each stage.)
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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