7 facts about syphilis

Treponema pallidum
Treponema pallidum

Syphilis is one of the oldest known STIs. Traditionally it was believed that Christopher Columbus had brought the disease to Europe from the “New World” in 1493. In the early part of the twentieth century, though, a new theory emerged that is was an old European disease that had suddenly evolved and become more virulent. 

The 'French disease'

Whatever the case, syphilis is probably the STI that still carries the worst stigma of all venereal diseases. It wasn’t nearly as deadly as the bubonic plague, but symptoms were (and still are) painful and repulsive.

No one wanted to “own” the disease; the Italians, Germans and Poles called it the “French disease”, while the French returned the favour and called it the “Italian disease”. Other current and past nicknames for syphilis are “syph”, “Cupid’s Disease” and “the Pox”.  

Read: STI risk underestimated

The reason why syphilis was regarded as foreign was probably because it was often spread by soldiers and sailors who frequented prostitutes in other countries.  

Syphilis is one of the 10 most common STIs, and although it is easily and successfully treated with antibiotics, especially in its early stages, it has not been eradicated by any means. 


1. Syphilis is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It is often called “the great imitator” because many of its symptoms are the same as those of other diseases. The disease was named after a mythical shepherd, Syphilus, from a sixteenth century poem by Girolamo Fracastoro. Syphilus insulted the Sun God, who punished him by striking him and his people down with a new, disgusting disease.  

2. Syphilis is very contagious and is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact when someone touches a syphilitic sore on another person. These sores can be on the penis, vagina, mouth or anus. The disease is normally transmitted during sexual contact. A pregnant mother who has syphilis can pass the disease on to her unborn baby. This is called congenital syphilis.   

Read: More babies born with syphilis

3. It is unlikely that you will catch syphilis from a toilet seat – unless you’ve been having sex on the toilet seat. Syphilis also cannot be transmitted by wearing someone else’s clothes or sharing cutlery and crockery. This is because, like in the case of gonorrhoea, the disease-causing organism cannot survive outside the body for long.

4. There are four stages of syphilis and it is most infectious during the first two stages.

Primary syphilis begins with a small, round, painless sore (chancre) which usually appears where the bacteria entered the body. This normally occurs about three weeks after infection, but can take up to three months. The chancre remains for about two to six weeks. 

Secondary syphilis is mostly characterised by a sore throat and skin rashes on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. The rashes could however appear anywhere on the body. Other symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Hair loss  
  • Aching joints

These symptoms are very often mistaken for other diseases and are the main reason why syphilis is called “the great imitator”. The symptoms will eventually disappear, but you’ll still have the disease.

Read: Syphilis up among gays and bisexuals

Latent (hidden) syphilis is the third stage. Symptoms disappear and, although you are still infected, there will be no noticeable signs that you have the disease. Secondary symptoms may reappear, but one can remain “in limbo” for a number of years until tertiary syphilis emerges.

Tertiary syphilis is the final stage of infection and can take up to 30 years to appear. Tertiary syphilis can be life-threatening and can lead to a number of apparently unrelated conditions like:

  • Infection of the brain or spinal cord (neurosyphilis)
  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Memory loss
  • Mental illness
  • Neurological disorders like stroke or meningitis
  • Heart disease

5. Syphilis is diagnosed by testing a patient’s blood or urine. If there is a chancre on the body, the doctor will take a sample to test for syphilis bacteria. If tertiary syphilis is suspected spinal fluid may be collected to test for bacteria. Pregnant women may be tested for syphilis to prevent the possibility of congenital syphilis, which could be fatal for the newborn.

Read: Syphilis tests cut baby deaths

6. Syphilis is treated with a penicillin injection. This is usually cures the condition. People who are allergic to penicillin can be treated with other antibiotics. If you are sexually active, your partner/s should also be treated. Don’t resume sexual activity until you’ve completed your treatment. It is also important to note that bacteria (“superbugs”) that are resistant to azithromycin (traditionally used to treat syphilis) have emerged.

7. Syphilis can be prevented by practising safe sex or abstaining from sex altogether. It is also a good idea to avoid sex with multiple partners, not sharing needles or sex toys, and getting screened for STIs on a regular basis.

Read more:

Did Columbus really bring syphilis to Europe?

One million pregnant women have syphilis

WHO 'pre-qualifies' new HIV/syphilis combo test


Journal of Medicine and Life: Brief History of Syphilis. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3956094/

JMVH: Syphilis – Its early history and Treatment until Penicillin and the Debate on its Origins. http://jmvh.org/article/syphilis-its-early-history-and-treatment-until-penicillin-and-the-debate-on-its-origins/

Helathline: What is Syphilis? http://www.healthline.com/health/std/syphilis#Overview1

NBC News: Drug-resistant syphylis is spreading. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/5387438/ns/health-sexual_health/t/drug-resistant-syphilis-spreading/#.V4YzFrh97ct

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