Sex Talk

I've got syphilis. Is it curable?

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng answers your sex questions

10 June 2018 - 00:00
Syphilis can be diagnosed by blood tests.
Syphilis can be diagnosed by blood tests.
Image: 123RF/Jarun011

Q: My test results show I have contracted syphilis. Is it true that it remains in the body for life?

A. Syphilis is a bacterial infection spread usually by sexual contact.

It spreads from person to person via skin or mucous membrane contact and presents with a painless sore on the genitals, rectum or mouth.

The sore typically develops about three weeks after exposure and at the site where the infection entered the body.

This is referred to as primary syphilis and one may not have noticed the appearance of the sore because it is painless. It usually heals on its own within three to six weeks.

The syphilis bacteria can lie dormant in your body for decades before becoming active again.


Secondary syphilis can occur within a few weeks of the initial sore healing, with symptoms of a rash that can appear over the whole body and which is visible on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.

This rash may also appear in the mouth or genital area. Some accompanying symptoms may be muscle aches, a fever, sore throat and swollen lymph nodes, hair loss and a combination of these symptoms may disappear within a few weeks or return repeatedly.

After the primary and secondary stages is the latent stage, in which people can remain symptom free. Up to 30% of people infected with syphilis who don't get treatment will develop complications known as tertiary (late) syphilis.

In the late stages, the disease may damage your brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. These problems may occur many years after the original, untreated infection.


Early syphilis can be cured, sometimes with a single injection of penicillin. Without treatment, syphilis can be life-threatening, or be passed from a pregnant person to the foetus through the placenta or during birth.

Syphilis can be diagnosed by blood tests to confirm the presence of antibodies. A recommended antibiotic regimen using penicillin is available and its best treated in the early stages. If you're allergic to penicillin or it is unavailable, your healthcare provider will suggest another antibiotic.

You must avoid sexual contact until the treatment is completed and blood tests indicate the infection has been cured. Notify your sex partners so that they can be tested and get treatment if necessary. You can still get infected again so condom use remains a must.

• Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng (MBChB), sexual and reproductive health practice, Disa Clinic,

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