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The symptoms of syphilis are similar for men and women. They're often mild and difficult to recognize, so you may pass on the infection without knowing you have it.The symptoms also tend to change over time and may come and go.Even if the symptoms do improve, there's still a risk you could pass the infection on or develop serious problems if you don't get treatment.

Early symptoms of syphilis

The first symptoms of syphilis usually develop around two or three weeks after infection, although they can start later than this.This stage of the infection is known as "primary syphilis".

  • the main symptom is a small, painless sore or ulcer called a chancre that you might not notice
  • the sore will typically be on the penis, vagina, or around the anus, although they can sometimes appear in the mouth or on the lips, fingers or buttocks
  • most people only have one sore, but some people have several
  • you may also have swollen glands in your neck, groin or armpits

These symptoms usually pass within two to eight weeks. But if the infection isn't treated, it may progress to a second stage.

Later symptoms of syphilis

Further symptoms may develop a few weeks after the initial symptoms have passed. This is known as "secondary syphilis".Symptoms of secondary syphilis include:

  • a blotchy red rash that can appear anywhere on the body, but often develops on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
  • small skin growths (similar to genital warts) – on women these often appear on the vulva and for both men and women they may appear around the anus
  • white patches in the mouth
  • flu-like symptoms, such as tiredness, headaches, joint pains and a high temperature (fever)
  • swollen glands
  • occasionally, patchy hair loss

These symptoms usually pass within a few weeks, although they may come and go over several months before they disappear.You'll still be infected even if you don't have symptoms. This is known as "latent syphilis" and it can last for decades and lead to serious problems if not treated.It's still possible to pass on the infection during this stage, although this usually only happens within two years of becoming infected.

Serious problems if left untreated

Without treatment, a syphilis infection can last for years or decades without causing any symptoms.Eventually, it can spread to parts of the body such as the brain or nerves and cause serious and potentially life-threatening problems. This is known as "tertiary syphilis".People with tertiary syphilis may experience:

  • meningitis
  • strokes
  • dementia symptoms
  • loss of co-ordination
  • numbness
  • vision problems or blindness
  • heart problems

Syphilis is easily curable with antibiotics in the early stages. If you get treatment late, it will still cure the infection and stop future damage to your body. But the damage that late stage syphilis has already caused can’t be changed or healed. The complications from late stage syphilis can happen 10-20 years after you first get infected.