Syphilis is a serious sexually transmitted infection (STI/STD) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It can cause major health problems throughout your body if left untreated.

Make an appointment at any of our clinics in Greater Victoria to get tested for syphilis, or to find out more.

For further reading, see BCCDC’s page on Syphilis.

How syphilis spreads

Up until several years ago, Syphilis was fairly uncommon in Canada. Unfortunately, syphilis is becoming more common in Canada, with statistics rising every year.

  • Syphilis is transmitted through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex with an infected partner.
  • An infected person can pass it on to a fetus during pregnancy.

Syphilis prevention

To prevent syphilis, use good sex safety skills including regular infection screening.

  • Use condoms to reduce the risk of syphilis during vaginal and anal sex.
  • Use condoms and dental dams to prevent transmission during oral sex.
  • Make an appointment to get tested for syphilis.

Syphilis symptoms

Symptoms vary greatly throughout the stages of syphilis; some people have no symptoms at all but are still infectious. Symptoms can mimic and are often mistaken for other illnesses – hence the nickname, the great imitator! Primary, secondary and early latent stages of syphilis are infections.

  • In the primary stage, some people will develop a painless sore (called a chancre sore)  where syphilis entered the body (the genitals, anus or inside the mouth). The sore may go unnoticed but will usually occurs 10 to 90 days after contact. The sore will go away on it’s own.
  • In the secondary stage (from 2 weeks to 6 months after infected), a non-itchy rash may develop. It can appear anywhere on the body but it most commonly appears on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, genital and trunk (chest, abdomen) area. Other symptoms may include headache, patchy hair loss, and weight loss.
  • In the latent stage of infection, a person may not experience symptoms for long periods of time. It will only progress to this stage if it has not been treated.
  • Some develop flu-like symptoms and/or a rash, both of which go away, despite the infection remaining.
  • Late stages of untreated syphilis can cause major damage throughout the body.

Risks of untreated syphilis

The late stages of untreated syphilis can cause major damage to many parts of the body including the the cardiovascular system, the brain and nervous system, and other organs such as eyes and ears. This damage can result in serious illnesses, mental health problems and even death.

Syphilis tests and diagnosis

Syphilis is usually diagnosed with a blood test. Sometimes when there is an obvious sore it can be swabbed and sent to the lab for testing.

Syphilis treatment

  • Syphilis can be treated and cured with antibiotics in the early stages. Specifically, penicillin is used to treat syphilis. If an allergy to penicillin is present, an alternative is available. An infected person will be re-tested after treated to ensure treatment was successful.
  • Damage caused to body systems caused by syphilis in the later stages cannot be reversed by medication.
  • All recent sex partners 3-12 months (time frame is dependent on the stage) need to be tested and treated. Partners are usually given treatment whether they present with symptoms or not. Treatment must be completed before resuming sexual activity.

More information on syphilis is available through BC Centre for Disease Control.