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How Is Syphilis Transmitted? All The Ways Syphilis Can Spread

Medically reviewed by Mae Charisse Antalan, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Gerard Tamayo · Updated Dec 19, 2022

How Is Syphilis Transmitted? All The Ways Syphilis Can Spread

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). How is syphilis transmitted? It spreads from person to person by direct contact with the syphilitic sore, also known as a chancre. This often occurs during sexual activity. These sores typically present around the area of the external genitals, around the anus, in the rectum, or in the vagina.

  • Sexual Transmission – The transmission of syphilis most commonly occurs during vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Contact with a chancre on the penis, vagina, anus, rectum, lips, or inside the mouth, creates a high chance of infection.
  • Vertical Transmission (From pregnant mother to fetus) – If you are a pregnant mother with syphilis, and are expecting to deliver soon, you may transmit the infection to the unborn child. This usually results in a low birth weight baby, delivery complications (including pre-term deliveries), or stillbirths.
  • Transfusion-transmitted infections (TTIs) – It is possible to transmit syphilis through blood transfusions. If the donor has syphilis, the recipient is at risk of developing syphilis. This is a rare occurrence, due to donor blood screening.
  • The sharing of needles, typically seen in persons who use illicit IV drugs, can also lead to the transmission of the infection. For healthcare professionals, accidentally pricking themselves with used needles can also lead to the transmission of the infection.

    How Is Syphilis Transmitted vs How It Is NOT Transmitted

    Syphilis is not transmitted by using the same toilet, bathroom, clothing, or cutlery as an infected person.

    How is syphilis transmitted? Syphilis spreads through direct contact with the chancre or syphilis sore. The only exception to this is transmission through the blood or through vertical transmission.

    Syphilis Transmitted Through Sexual Contact

    To completely avoid syphilis transmission, abstain from sexual contact if you or your partner have syphilis, or present symptoms.

    To prevent the transmission of syphilis during sex, it is also important to practice safe sex, including:

    • Using barrier contraceptive methods – Using male or female condoms during vaginal, oral, and anal sex can help prevent direct contact to sores. Failure of the barriers, such as when the condom breaks during intercourse, can lead to contact and infection.
    • Avoid sharing sex toys – If using sex toys, avoid sharing them. If you cannot prevent this, wash them after every use. Apply a condom on the toy before every use to further decrease the risk of infection.

    Syphilis is most transmissible (meaning the chances of someone transmitting the infection to another person are highest) when the infected person is at the primary and secondary stage of syphilis. During the latent phase, the likelihood of transmitting the disease is half that of the transmission during the primary and secondary stages of syphilis.

    What To Do If You Think You Have Syphilis

    Sexual activity is primarily how syphilis is transmitted. Practice abstinence or complete avoidance of sex if you think that you or your partner has syphilis. Avoid having sex with a partner if either of you present symptoms.

    Syphilis can present as symptomatic, meaning you have sores present, or asymptomatic depending on the stage of your condition. If you have had sexual intercourse with someone you think might have syphilis, you may undergo screening to check if you are positive. This way, you can receive treatment before symptoms even appear. This may prevent further development of the disease, and prevent further transmission to other people. Healthcare professionals recommend that high risk individuals undergo screening to catch the infection early. This includes people who have multiple sexual partners and partake in unprotected sex.

    Key Takeaways

    Syphilis is a highly transmissible disease, especially during its primary and secondary stages. Although the likelihood of transmission during the latent stage is lower, there is still a chance of transmission. Understanding how syphilis spreads can help prevent infection.

    How is syphilis transmitted? Syphilis primarily spreads through sexual intercourse without protection, whether it be oral, anal, or vaginal sex. Syphilis may also spread through the placenta to the fetus of a pregnant mother who is positive for syphilis. It may also spread through sharing needles or workplace accidents in the hospital that involve needle pricks.

    Undergo screening for syphilis if you have had unprotected sex outside of a monogamous relationship.


    Learn more about Syphilis here


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Mae Charisse Antalan, MD

    General Practitioner

    Written by Gerard Tamayo · Updated Dec 19, 2022

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