Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by a kind of bacteria. It usually starts by causing painless sores (called chancres) or rashes on the skin, but over time it can become much more serious.

Who has it?

In 2016, there were almost 27,000 total cases of syphilis reported to the CDC in the US. In California alone, there were over 13,000 reported cases of syphilis in 2017, the highest recorded since 1987. Most reported cases of syphilis in the US are in men who have sex with men (MSM), but there has been an increase cases among heterosexual men and women in 2016.

How do you get syphilis?

Syphilis is spread through contact with sores (called chancres) or other symptoms of syphilis. It can be spread by having oral, vaginal, or anal sex, or by kissing someone who has a syphilis sore on their mouth.

How do you know you have syphilis?

The signs of syphilis can be so mild that you may never notice them. The first sign is a painless sore, called a chancre. This sore can be on or near the vagina, penis, mouth, or anus. It heals by itself even if it is not treated, but unless you get treated, you will still have syphilis.

After a few weeks or months without getting treated, you may have a rash on the palms of your hands or soles of your feet, swollen glands, joint pain, fever, hair loss, sore throat, or headaches. These signs may also go away without treatment, but you still have the disease.

How do you test for syphilis?

Clinicians may look at any sores or other symptoms you have to see if they are syphilis. If you don’t have symptoms, your doctor may also take a small sample of blood from you to test for syphilis.

Can you get rid of syphilis?

Yes – if you have syphilis, a health worker will give you an antibiotic shot. To keep from infecting your partners, you should avoid sex until you have taken all the antibiotics and your partner has been tested and treated if necessary.

How can you protect yourself from getting syphilis?

The only method that is 100% effective in preventing STDs is abstinence, but if you’re sexually active, the best way to avoid syphilis is by being mutually monogamous with someone who also does not have syphilis. Condoms may reduce the risk of passing syphilis to a partner during vaginal sex or during oral sex with a man, but since it can be passed by touching the syphilis chancres, which might not be covered by a condom, condoms aren’t 100% effective.

To reduce your risk of syphilis during oral sex on a female, you can use a dental dam as a barrier between the mouth and vulva. A dental dam is a thin square of latex that is placed over a woman’s vulva before her partner performs oral sex on her and acts as a barrier between the vulva and the mouth. They are sold in some stores, but you can make your own dental dam using a latex glove or a male condom. For protection against syphilis during any type of anal sex (rimming, penetration, etc.), you can use a female condom.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Syphilis can be very dangerous if you don’t treat it. It can cause blindness, brain damage, heart disease, or death. Pregnant women who have syphilis can pass it to their baby, which could make the baby very sick. You could also pass it on to your partners, even if you aren’t aware of symptoms. Syphilis infection also increases your likelihood of getting HIV.