Classification and external resources

Electron micrograph of Treponema pallidum
ICD-10 A50-A53
ICD-9 090-097
DiseasesDB 29054
MedlinePlus 001327
eMedicine med/2224 emerg/563 derm/413
MeSH D013587

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the spirochete bacterium Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum. The primary route of transmission is through sexual contact; however, it may also be transmitted from mother to fetus during pregnancy or at birth, resulting in congenital syphilis. Other human diseases caused by related Treponema pallidum include yaws (subspecies pertenue), pinta (subspecies carateum) and bejel (subspecies endemicum).

The signs and symptoms of syphilis vary depending in which of the four stages it presents (primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary). The primary stage classically presents with a single chancre (a firm, painless, non-itchy skin ulceration), secondary syphilis with a diffuse rash which frequently involves the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, latent syphilis with little to no symptoms, and tertiary syphilis with gummas, neurological, or cardiac symptoms. It has, however, been known as "the great imitator" due to its frequent atypical presentations. Diagnosis is usually via blood tests; however, the bacteria can also be visualized under a microscope. Syphilis can be effectively treated with antibiotics, specifically intramuscular penicillin G, and in those who are allergic, ceftriaxone is recommended.

Syphilis is believed to have infected 12 million people worldwide in 1999, with greater than 90% of cases in the developing world. After decreasing dramatically since the widespread availability of penicillin in 1940s, rates of infection have increased since the turn of the millennium in many countries, often in combination with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). This has been attributed partly to risky sexual practices including multiple sexual partners and lack of barrier protection. Higher risk populations include men who have sex with men and sex workers.[citation needed]

Signs and symptoms

Syphilis can present in one of four different stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary,[1] and may also occur congenitally.[2] It was referred to as "the great imitator" by Sir William Osler due to its varied presentations.[1][3]


Primary chancre of syphilis on the hand

Primary syphilis is typically acquired by direct sexual contact with the infectious lesions of another person.[4] Approximately three to 90 days after the initial exposure (average 21 days) a skin lesion, called a chancre, appears at the point of contact.[1] This is classically (40% of the time) a single, firm, painless, non-itchy skin ulceration with a clean base and sharp borders between 0.3 and 3.0 cm in size.[1] The lesion, however, may take on almost any form.[5] In the classic form, it evolves from a macule to a papule and finally to an erosion or ulcer.[5] Occasionally, multiple lesions may be present (~40%),[1] with multiple lesions more common when coinfected with HIV. Lesions may be painful or tender (30%), and they may occur outside of the genitals (2–7%). The most common location in women is the cervix (44%), the penis in heterosexual men (99%), and anally and rectally relatively commonly in men who have sex with men (34%).[5] Lymph node enlargement frequently (80%) occurs around the area of infection,[1] occurring 7–10 days after chancre formation.[5] The lesion may persist for three to six weeks without treatment.[1]


Typical presentation of secondary syphilis with a rash on the palms of the hands
Reddish papules and nodules over much of the body due to secondary syphilis

Secondary syphilis occurs approximately four to ten weeks after the primary infection.[1] While secondary disease is known for the many different ways it can manifest, symptoms most commonly involve the skin, mucus membranes, and lymph nodes.[6] There may be a symmetrical reddish-pink non-itchy rash on the trunk and extremities, including the palms and soles.[1][7] The rash may become maculopapular or pustular. It may form flat, broad, whitish, wart-like lesions known as condyloma latum on mucous membranes. All of these lesions are infectious harboring bacteria. Other symptoms may include fever, sore throat, malaise, weight loss, hair loss, and headache.[1] Rare manifestations include hepatitis, kidney disease, arthritis, periostitis, optic neuritis, uveitis, and interstitial keratitis.[1][8] The acute symptoms usually resolve after three to six weeks;[8] however, about 25% may present with a recurrence of secondary symptoms. Many people who present with secondary syphilis (40–85% of women, 20–65% of men) do not report previously having the classic chancre of primary syphilis.[6]


Latent syphilis is defined as having serologic proof of infection without symptoms of disease.[4] It is further described as either early (less than 1 year after secondary syphilis) or late (more than 1 year after secondary syphilis) in the United States.[8] The United Kingdom uses a cut-off of two years for early and late latent syphilis.[5] Early latent syphilis may have a relapse of symptoms. Late latent syphilis is asymptomatic, and not as contagious as early latent syphilis.[8]


Tertiary syphilis may occur approximately three to 15 years after the initial infection, and may be divided into three different forms: gummatous syphilis (15%), late neurosyphilis (6.5%), and cardiovascular syphilis (10%).[1][8] Without treatment, a third of infected people develop tertiary disease.[8] People with tertiary syphilis are not infectious.[1]

Gummatous syphilis or late benign syphilis usually occurs one to 46 years after the initial infection, with an average of 15 years. This stage is characterized by the formation of chronic gummas, which are soft, tumor-like balls of inflammation which may vary considerably in size. They typically affect the skin, bone, and liver, but can occur anywhere.[1]

Neurosyphilis refers to an infection involving the central nervous system. It may occur early, being either asymptomatic or in the form of syphilitic meningitis, or late as meningovascular syphilis, general paresis, or tabes dorsalis, which is associated with poor balance and lightning pains in the lower extremities. Late neurosyphilis typically occurs four to 25 years after the initial infection. Meningovascular syphilis typically presents with apathy and seizure, and general paresis with dementia and tabes dorsalis.[1] Also, there may be Argyll Robertson pupils, which are bilateral small pupils that constrict when the person focuses on near objects, but do not constrict when exposed to bright light.

Cardiovascular syphilis usually occurs 10–30 years after the initial infection. The most common complication is syphilitic aortitis, which may result in aneurysm formation.[1]


Congenital syphilis may occur during pregnancy or during birth. Two-thirds of syphilitic infants are born without symptoms. Common symptoms that then develop over the first couple years of life include: hepatosplenomegaly (70%), rash (70%), fever (40%), neurosyphylis (20%), and pneumonitis (20%). If untreated, late congenital syphilis may occur in 40%, including: saddle nose deformation, Higoumenakis sign, saber shin, or Clutton's joints among others.[9]



Histopathology of Treponema pallidum spirochetes using a modified Steiner silver stain

Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum is a spiral-shaped, Gram-negative, highly mobile bacterium.[5][10] Three other human diseases are caused by related Treponema pallidum, including yaws (subspecies pertenue), pinta (subspecies carateum) and bejel (subspecies endemicum).[1] Unlike subtype pallidum they do not cause neurological disease.[9] Humans are the only known natural reservoir for subspecies pallidum.[2] It is unable to survive without a host for more than a few days. This is due to its small genome (1.14 MDa) and thus its inability to make most of its macronutrients. It has a slow doubling time of greater than 30 hours.[5]


Syphilis is transmitted primarily by sexual contact or during pregnancy from a mother to her fetus; the spirochaete is able to pass through intact mucous membranes or compromised skin.[1][2] It is thus transmissible by kissing, oral, vaginal, and anal sex.[1] Approximately 30 to 60% of those exposed to primary or secondary syphilis will get the disease.[8] Its infectivity is exemplified by the fact that an individual inoculated with only 57 organisms has a 50% chance of being infected.[5] Most (60%) of new cases in the United States occur in men who have sex with men. It can be transmitted via blood products. However, it is tested for in many countries and thus the risk is low. The risk of transmission from sharing needles appears limited.[1] Syphilis cannot be contracted through toilet seats, daily activities, hot tubs, or sharing eating utensils or clothing.[11]


Poster for testing of syphilis, showing a man and a woman bowing their heads in shame (ca. 1936)

Syphilis is difficult to diagnose clinically early in its presentation.[5] Confirmation is either via blood tests or direct visual inspection using microscopy. Blood tests are more commonly used, as they are easier to perform.[1] Diagnostic tests are, however, unable to distinguish between the stages of the disease.[12]

Blood tests

Blood tests are divided into nontreponemal and treponemal tests.[5] Nontreponemal tests are used initially, and include venereal disease research laboratory (VDRL) and rapid plasma reagin tests. However, as these tests are occasionally false positives, confirmation is required with a treponemal test, such as treponemal pallidum particle agglutination (TPHA) or fluorescent treponemal antibody absorption test (FTA-Abs).[1] False positives on the nontreponemal tests can occur with some viral infections such as varicella and measles, as well as with lymphoma, tuberculosis, malaria, endocarditis, connective tissue disease, and pregnancy.[4] Treponemal antibody tests usually become positive two to five weeks after the initial infection.[5] Neurosyphilis is diagnosed by finding high numbers of leukocytes (predominately lymphocytes) and high protein levels in the cerebrospinal fluid in the setting of a known syphilis infection.[1][4]

Direct testing

Dark ground microscopy of serous fluid from a chancre may be used to make an immediate diagnosis. However, hospitals do not always have equipment or experienced staff members, whereas testing must be done within 10 minutes of acquiring the sample. Sensitivity has been reported to be nearly 80%, thus can only be used to confirm a diagnosis but not rule one out. Two other tests that can be carried out on a sample from the chancre are direct fluorescent antibody testing and nucleic acid amplification tests. Direct fluorescent testing uses antibodies tagged with fluorescein, which attach to specific syphilis proteins, while nucleic acid amplification uses techniques, such as the polymerase chain reaction, to detect the presence of specific syphilis genes. These tests are not as time-sensitive, as they do not require living bacteria to make the diagnosis.[5]


As of 2010, there is no vaccine effective for prevention.[2] Abstinence from intimate physical contact with an infected person is effective at reducing the transmission of syphilis, as is the proper use of a latex condom. Condom use, however, does not completely eliminate the risk.[13][14] Thus, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner and the avoidance of substances such as alcohol and other drugs that increase risky sexual behavior.[15]

Congenital syphilis in the newborn can be prevented by screening mothers during early pregnancy and treating those who are infected.[16] The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) strongly recommends universal screening of all pregnant women,[17] while the World Health Organization recommends all women be tested at their first antenatal visit and again in the third trimester.[18] If they are positive, they recommend their partners also be treated.[18] Congenital syphilis is, however, still common in the developing world, as many women do not receive antenatal care at all, and the antenatal care others do receive does not include screening,[16] and it still occasionally occurs in the developed world, as those most likely to acquire syphilis (through drug use, etc.) are least likely to receive care during pregnancy.[16] A number of measures to increase access to testing appear effective at reducing rates of congenital syphilis in low to middle income countries.[18]

Syphilis is a notifiable disease in many countries, including Canada,[19] the European Union,[20] and United States.[21] This means health care providers are required to notify public health authorities, which will then ideally provide partner notification to the person's partners. [22] Physicians may also encourage patients to send their partners to seek care.[23] The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends sexually active men who have sex with men are tested at least yearly.[24]


Early infections

The first-choice treatment for uncomplicated syphilis remains a single dose of intramuscular penicillin G or a single dose of oral azithromycin.[25] Doxycycline and tetracycline are alternative choices; however, they cannot be used in pregnant women. Antibiotic resistance has developed to a number of agents, including macrolides, clindamycin, and rifampin.[2] Ceftriaxone, a third-generation cephalosporin antibiotic, may be as effective as penicillin-based treatment.[1]

Late infections

For neurosyphilis due to the poor penetration of penicillin G into the central nervous system, those affected are recommended to be given large doses of intravenous penicillin for a minimum of 10 days.[1][2] If a person is allergic, ceftriaxone may be used or penicillin desensitization attempted. Other late presentations may be treated with once-weekly intramuscular penicillin G for three weeks. If allergic, as in the case of early disease, doxycycline or tetracycline may be used, but for a longer duration. Treatment at this point will limit further progression, but has only slight effect on damage which has already occurred.[1]

Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction

One of the potential side effects of treatment is the Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction. It frequently starts within one hour and lasts for 24 hours, with symptoms of fever, muscles pains, headache, and tachycardia.[1] It is caused by cytokines released by the immune system in response to lipoproteins released from rupturing syphilis bacteria.[26]


Age-standardized death from syphilis per 100,000 inhabitants in 2004[27]
  no data

Syphilis is believed to have infected 12 million people in 1999, with greater than 90% of cases in the developing world.[2] It affects between 700,000 and 1.6 million pregnacies a year, resulting in spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and congenital syphilis. In sub-Saharan Africa, syphilis contributes to approximately 20% of perinatal deaths.[9] Rates are proportionally higher among intravenous drug users, those who are infected with HIV, and men who have sex with men.[28][29][30] In the United States, rates of syphilis as of 2007 were six times greater in men than women, while they were nearly equal in 1997.[31] African Americans accounted for almost half of all cases in 2010.[32]

Syphilis was very common is Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. In the developed world during the early 20th century, infections declined rapidly with the widespread use of antibiotics, until the 1980s and 1990s.[10] Since the year 2000, rates of syphilis have been increasing in the USA, UK, Australia and Europe, primarily among men who have sex with men.[2] Rates of syphilis among American women have, however, remained stable during this time, and rates among UK women have increased, but at a rate less than that of men.[33] Increased rates among heterosexuals have occurred in China and Russia since the 1990s.[2] This has been attributed to unsafe sexual practices, such as sexual promiscuity, prostitution, and decreasing use of barrier protection.[2][34][33]

Untreated, it has a mortality of 8% to 58%, with a greater death rate in males.[1] The symptoms of syphilis have become less severe over the 19th and 20th centuries, in part due to widespread availability of effective treatment and partly due to decreasing virulence of the spirochaete.[6] With early treatment, few complications result.[5] Syphilis increases the risk of HIV transmission by two to five times, and coinfection is common (30–60% in a number of urban centers).[1][2]


Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse by Rembrandt van Rijn, ca. 1665–67, oil on canvas. De Lairesse, himself a painter and art theorist, suffered from congenital syphilis that severely deformed his face and eventually blinded him.[35]

The exact origin of syphilis is unknown.[1] Of two primary hypotheses, one proposes syphilis was carried to Europe by the returning crewmen from Christopher Columbus's voyage to the Americas, the other proposes syphilis existed in Europe previously, but went unrecognized. These are referred to as the "Columbian" and "pre-Columbian" hypotheses respectively.[12] The Columbian hypothesis is best supported by the available evidence.[36] The first written records of an outbreak of syphilis in Europe occurred in 1494/1495 in Naples, Italy, during a French invasion.[10][12] Due to it being spread by returning French troops, it was initially known as the “French disease”. It is only in 1530 that the name "syphilis" was first used by the Italian physician and poet Girolamo Fracastoro as the title of his Latin poem in dactylic hexameter describing the ravages of the disease in Italy.[37] It was also known historically as the "Great Pox".[38][39]

The causative organism, Treponema pallidum, was first identified by Fritz Schaudinn and Erich Hoffmann in 1905.[10] The first effective treatment (Salvarsan) was developed in 1910 by Paul Ehrlich, which was followed by trials of penicillin and confirmation of its effectiveness in 1943.[10][38] Before the advent of effective treatment, mercury and isolation were commonly used, with treatments often worse than the disease.[38] Many famous historical figures, including Franz Schubert, Arthur Schopenhauer, Édouard Manet[10] and Adolf Hitler,[40] are believed to have had the disease.

Society and culture

Arts and literature

Moll dies of syphillis, Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress

The earliest Europe work of art to depict syphilis is Albrecht Dürer's Syphilitic Man, a wood cutting believed to represent a Landsknecht, a Northern European mercenary.[41] The myth of the femme fatale or "poison women" of the 19th century is believed to be partly derived from the devastation of syphilis, with classic examples in literature including John Keats' La Belle Dame sans Merci.[42][43]

The artist Jan van der Straet painted a scene of a wealthy man receiving treatment for syphilis with the tropical wood guaiacum sometime around 1580.[44] The title of the work is "Preparation and Use of Guayaco for Treating Syphilis". That the artist chose to include this image in a series of works celebrating the New World indicates how important a treatment, however ineffective, for syphilis was to the European elite at that time. The richly colored and detailed work depicts four servants preparing the concoction while a physician looks on, hiding something behind his back while the hapless patient drinks.[45]

Tuskegee and Guatemala studies

One of the most infamous United States cases of questionable medical ethics in the 20th century was the Tuskegee syphilis study.[46] The study took place in Tuskegee, Alabama, and was supported by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) in partnership with the Tuskegee Institute.[47] The study began in 1932, when syphilis was a widespread problem and there was no safe and effective treatment.[3] The study was designed to measure the progression of untreated syphilis. By 1947, penicillin had been validated as an effective cure for syphilis and was becoming widely used to treat the disease. Study directors, however, continued the study and did not offer the participants treatment with penicillin.[47] This is debated, and some have found that penicillin was given to many of the subjects.[3] The study did not end until 1972.[47]

Syphilis experiments were also carried out in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948. They were United States-sponsored human experiments, conducted during the government of Juan José Arévalo with the cooperation of some Guatemalan health ministries and officials. Doctors infected soldiers, prisoners, and mental patients with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases, without the informed consent of the subjects, and then treated them with antibiotics. In October 2010, the U.S. formally apologized to Guatemala for conducting these experiments.[48]


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Further reading

  • Parascandola, John. Sex, Sin, and Science: A History of Syphilis in America (Praeger, 2008) 195 pp. ISBN 978-0-275-99430-3 excerpt and text search
  • Shmaefsky, Brian, Hilary Babcock and David L. Heymann. Syphilis (Deadly Diseases & Epidemics) (2009)
  • Stein, Claudia. Negotiating the French Pox in Early Modern Germany (2009)

External links

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  • Syphilis — Sf (Geschlechtskrankheit) erw. fach. (18. Jh.) Onomastische Bildung. Nach dem Titel eines lateinischen Lehrgedichts des 16. Jhs., in dem die Geschichte des geschlechtskranken Hirten Syphilus erzählt wird. Der Hirt ist vom Sonnengott abgefallen,… …   Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen sprache

  • syphilis — 1718, Mod.L., originally from the title of a poem, Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus Syphilis, or the French Disease, 1530, by Veronese doctor Girolamo Fracastoro (1483 1553), which tells the tale of the shepherd Syphilus, supposed to be the first… …   Etymology dictionary

  • syphilis — [sif′ə lis] n. [ModL < Syphilis sive Morbus Gallicus, lit., Syphilis or the French disease, title of a poem (1530) by Girolamo Fracastoro: after the hero Syphilus, a shepherd] an infectious venereal disease caused by a spirochete (Treponema… …   English World dictionary

  • Syphilis — Syph i*lis, n. [NL., fr. Syphilus, the name of a shepherd in the Latin poem of Fracastoro, Syphilus, sive Morbus Gallicus, which was published in 1530; Gr. ? hog, swine + ? dear, loving. The term was introduced into nosology by Sauvages.] (Med.)… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Syphĭlis — (Morbus venereus, Lues venerea, Lustseuche), eine durch Übertragung eines eigenthümlichen Contagiums auf einen gesunden Menschen entstehende, Anfangs örtliche , später nach dem Übergänge des Krankheitsgiftes in die Säftemasse des Körpers… …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Syphĭlis — (griech., Lustseuche, Venerie, Franzosenkrankheit, lat. Luës, vgl. Morbus und Mal), ansteckende Krankheit, die vorwiegend durch geschlechtlichen Verkehr übertragen wird und nicht allein örtliche, auf die Stelle der Ansteckung beschränkte… …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Syphilis — Syphĭlis (grch.), venerische Krankheit, Lustseuche, eine chronische Infektionskrankheit, welche durch die Übertragung des Schankergifts oder syphilitischen Virus während des Beischlafs oder durch Vererbung (hereditäre S.) entsteht. Als Erreger… …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • Syphilis — Syphilis, Lustseuche, venerische Seuche, ist eine durch Ansteckung mittelst des in der Regel unter der Form von Eiter od. Jauche sichtbaren, in den Kreislauf gebrachten Giftes entstehende Krankheit, die sich zunächst an dem Orte, der Infection,… …   Herders Conversations-Lexikon

  • syphilis — SYPHILIS: Plus ou moins, tout le monde en est affecté …   Dictionnaire des idées reçues

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