Men: The Syphilis Symptoms To Look Out For

The Warning Signs and Stages of This STI

Couple Kissing
Couple Kissing. Joern Pollex / Staff / Getty Images

Signs and Symptoms of Syphilis in Men

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by Treponema pallidum, a specific type of bacteria called a spirochete. It is characterized by four stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. Each stage of syphilis has characteristic symptoms, but any particular sign may or may not be present.

After becoming infected with syphilis, there is an incubation period between nine and 90 days (the average being around 21 days) before the first signs and symptoms of the disease appear.

Signs and Symptoms of Primary Syphilis

The primary stage of syphilis typically begins with a sore (called a "chancre") on the area of your body that was initially exposed to the infection—usually the genitals, rectum, or mouth. The sore has been described by others as feeling like a button: firm, round, usually measuring half an inch across, and not tender to the touch. Swelling of the lymph nodes in the groin may also occur, but the nodes are not usually tender.

Infected individuals do not usually feel ill in the primary stage of syphilis, and the chancre heals spontaneously after four to six weeks. Don't be fooled when this occurs, though. It doesn't mean the infection has cleared up. Even though there are no obvious signs at this stage, the syphilis continues to spread throughout the body.

Signs and Symptoms of Secondary Syphilis

After the primary stage, if left untreated, the infection moves into the secondary stage of syphilis.

Secondary syphilis can often occur several weeks after the chancre heals, once the bacteria have spread throughout the body. You may feel sick. Common symptoms include headache, achiness, loss of appetite, and/or a rash.

The non-itchy rash that sometimes presents in the secondary stage of syphilis is usually reddish-brown in color.

But the appearance of the rash's individual lesions can vary dramatically. They may be flat or raised, they may or may not be scaly, and pustules may or may not be present. It's partially due to the variability of this rash that syphilis became known as "the great imitator." It can often resemble many other conditions. The rash itself can last from a few weeks to several months.

Other symptoms of secondary syphilis include sores in the mouth, nose, and throat, and on the genitals or folds of the skin. Lymph node swelling is common, and patchy hair loss can occur. All signs and symptoms of the second stage of syphilis will disappear without treatment between three weeks and nine months, but the infection will still be present in the body.

Signs and Symptoms of Latent Syphilis

The latent stage of syphilis, which occurs after the symptoms of secondary syphilis have disappeared, can last anywhere from a few years to up to 50 years! There are no symptoms in this stage and, after about two years, you may cease to be contagious.

However, if you are in the latent stage of syphilis, you are still infected, and the disease can still be diagnosed by a blood test. 

Signs and Symptoms of Tertiary Syphilis

The final stage of syphilis, which occurs in about one third of those who are not treated, is known as the tertiary stage. Many organs may be affected. Common symptoms include fever; painful, non-healing skin ulcers; bone pain; liver disease; and anemia. Tertiary syphilis can also affect the nervous system (resulting in the loss of mental functioning) and the aorta (resulting in heart disease).

Further Reading on How To Test for and Treat Syphilis

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