Syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease: what to do?

Syphilis is an STD caused by a bacteria. This condition has different stages. Characteristic is the development of a painless ulcer at the site of the infection. Later, other complaints may develop in other parts of the body. Once you are infected, there is nothing you can do about it. Then it must be treated. How do you know when you have this sexually transmitted disease and how should it be treated?

What it is

Syphilis, which has a medical name called lues, is an STD (sexually transmitted disease). It is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallium. An ulcer only develops 2 to 12 weeks after infection. It is a venereal disease and is transmitted through sexual contact. Although it is not that common in our country anymore, you still have to be careful not to get it.


Syphilis can go quite unnoticed, especially in women. The symptoms are sometimes limited to abnormal vaginal discharge. The lymph nodes near the infection may be somewhat enlarged. This doesn’t hurt either. Because the symptoms disappear again, people may think that the condition has disappeared.

The gradient

Infection with syphilis has different stages: the primary, secondary and tertiary stages. The third stage is also called the latent stage.

The primary stage

In the first stage, a hard painless ulcer (chanker) develops on the genitals, in the mouth or around the anus. The ulcer has a hard edge. The medical name is ulcer durum. This is also called early syphilis. Within a few weeks the ulcer disappears and appears to have cleared up, but the infection continues to develop.

The secondary stage

About 6 to 12 weeks later, new symptoms develop, in particular: a new itchy rash, sometimes only visible on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet, hair loss and ulcers on the mucous membrane in the mouth. The patient may feel flu-like and the lymph nodes are swollen. Flat, wart-like and highly contagious thickenings (condylomata lata) can develop around the genitals and anus. These symptoms can last for months. Then the symptoms disappear again, but it is not yet gone.

The tertiary stage

This stage is also called the latent phase. There comes a period that can vary from years to perhaps lifelong when you have no complaints. However, a tertiary phase can develop after a long period. The disease has now spread to the house in the form of lumps and ulcers. It also affects all kinds of organs, the nervous system and the cardiovascular system. This is rare in our Western world.


If a pregnant woman is infected with syphilis, she can transmit this condition to her unborn child from the fourth month of pregnancy. In the Netherlands, blood tests are done at the beginning of pregnancy to check for the presence of syphilis. It is checked as standard because syphilis can damage the health of the baby.


Once you are infected, there is nothing you can do about it. Therefore, prevention is better than cure. Therefore always safe. Do not have sexual contact with anyone who is in primary or secondary stages of syphilis because it is highly contagious. People in this stage should avoid sexual contact until treatment is completed.

Tips for protection:

  • Always use a condom
  • You can also become infected through your mouth
  • Cuddling and caressing is safe
  • Touching each other with hands is safe
  • Tell your partner if you have syphilis

To the doctor

If you develop an ulcer around your genitals, in your mouth or around the anus after having sexual contact, make an appointment with your doctor. Syphilis is easy to treat with antibiotics, usually given via an injection into your buttock. Your GP will probably refer you to a specialist in venereal diseases, usually a dermatologist. You must remain under control after treatment. If syphilis is not treated, all kinds of complaints can later develop in the heart or brain.

Inform your partner

It is very important to tell your partner if you have syphilis, even if you find this very difficult. Your partner also needs to be treated. With primary syphilis, all partners with whom you have had sexual contact in the previous three months are at risk of infection. In the case of secondary syphilis, even the partners from the previous year. You never become immune to syphilis and will develop the symptoms again after becoming infected again.