Why You Should Get Tested for Syphilis

By Debbe Geiger
April 06, 2023
A couple sitting together holding hands

Syphilis has been around for centuries and continues to be a significant health problem. In fact, cases have been on the rise for the past 20 years. Here, Tony Moody, MD, a Duke pediatric infectious disease doctor who studies syphilis, explains why everyone should get tested and how treatment can stop the infection and its spread.

What Is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that spreads through sexual contact. The first symptom is a painless sore on the genitals, rectum, or mouth. That is the spot where the infection entered the body. It is through that spot that the infection spreads from person to person.

Syphilis is called the “great imitator” because it can look like anything. Once the infection is in your body, you may not feel anything for years. Additional painless sores may appear and go unnoticed because they are inside the vagina or rectum. A rash can develop but it’s typically not itchy or uncomfortable. If you or your doctor don’t know these symptoms are connected, syphilis may continue undetected.

Learn why getting tested for syphilis is so important.

What Does Syphilis Do to the Body?

Untreated syphilis can cause significant health problems. Pregnant women with syphilis are at increased risk for miscarriage, stillbirth, or premature birth. They can also transmit syphilis to their unborn children. This is called congenital syphilis and it is also on the rise. Over time, syphilis can become neurosyphilis for which there is no treatment. It can do serious damage to your heart, brain, and other organs.

Who Should Get Tested for Syphilis?

Everyone who has sex should get tested for syphilis. Having multiple sexual partners or engaging in high-risk sexual activities increases your risk, but if you’re having sex with one person, you should still get tested. Syphilis testing should be part of every person’s ongoing care. If your doctor asks you about being tested, don’t be offended. This is about keeping you healthy. If syphilis is detected early, antibiotics can cure you.

Why Don't People Get Tested for Syphilis?

People don’t get tested because they don’t know they should, or their doctors don’t suggest it.

There’s also a lot of mistrust, especially among the Black and Latino communities, because of terrible experiments and practices performed by U.S. public health officials during the 20th century.

It’s important for providers to be clear that the only reason we want to test people for syphilis now is because we have a cure. The more people we can diagnose with syphilis and treat, the less likely syphilis will continue to spread.

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Infectious Disease Care