What the heck is it anyway?

Syphilis is serious, but it’s curable. It is caused by a bacterium (Treponema pallidum, to be exact) and can infect anyone. It is spread during sexual contact (vaginal, anal and oral sex, mostly), and is commonly transmitted when someone who doesn’t have syphilis comes into contact with an infected person’s syphilis sores.

Syphilis might seem seriously old school. Historians say Beethoven, Henry the 8th, and Abraham Lincoln all had syphilis. But the disease infects an estimated 55,000 people in the U.S. each year, and it’s on the rise in many places in North Carolina.

Syphilis has earned the nickname “The Great Pretender” because its symptoms can look like many other diseases. Some common symptoms of syphilis include:

  • Sores
  • Skin rash
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph glands

If left untreated, syphilis can get real serious, real quick. Without treatment, syphilis can lead to permanent brain damage, paralysis and blindness.

As with most STIs, many people don’t show symptoms at all. The only way to know if you have syphilis is to get tested at a doctor’s office.


The only way to avoid syphilis completely is to avoid sex of any kind, but you can have safer sex with condoms (external or internal), or dental dams if you’re having oral sex. If you’re tested and diagnosed with syphilis, you need to talk to your partner. It can be a difficult and awkward conversation, but it’s important so both of you can get (and stay!) healthy. Syphilis doesn’t flare up again once it’s cured, but you can get infected again if your partner is infected and doesn’t get treated. (Which means that you’ll need to get treated again. Which is zero fun.)

Most of the time, doctors use a blood test to check for syphilis, but some will test the fluid from a syphilis sore. It can be cured pretty easily with the right antibiotics from your doctor. But it’s critical to catch it early; the sooner you know you have syphilis, the faster you can start getting rid of it.


In North Carolina, you have the right to get confidential HIV and STI tests and treatment without a parent’s permission. Want to get tested, but not sure where to start? Use this nifty search tool to find a testing site near you.