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What is syphilis

  • Syphilis is a bacterial infection that most often is a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Who is at risk

  • People who are sexually active, especially if they:
    • engage in high-risk sexual activity: i.e. having sex without a condom, having multiple sexual partners, having anonymous sex, having sex while using drugs
    • have HIV or other sexually transmitted infections;
    • are taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV prevention; or
    • have partner(s) who have tested positive for syphilis

Pregnant people: Your baby is at risk

  • Pregnant people should be tested for syphilis 3 times during their pregnancy:
    • in the first trimester (your doctor is required by NYS to give you this test)
    • in the third trimester
    • at birth
  • Why testing for syphilis is incredibly important:
    • Testing during pregnancy: Having syphilis (a positive test) can cause a low-birth-weight-baby and increase the chance the baby will be delivered too early or stillborn.
    • Testing at birth: A baby born with a syphilis infection may not have signs or symptoms of disease at birth. However, if the baby does not receive treatment right away, the baby may develop serious health problems within a few weeks, including cataracts, deafness, seizures or death

What are the symptoms

  • Primary stage symptoms include painless sores (called chancres), rashes or lesions. These may begin 10 days after infection and can take up to 3 months to develop. Often these are not noticed by the individual, so the disease progresses untreated.
  • Secondary stage symptoms can appear when the primary symptoms are not detected and so not treated. Most common is a rash on different parts of the body, but may also include tiredness, fever, sore throat, headaches, hoarseness, loss of appetite, patchy hair loss and swollen glands.
  • Late stage symptoms include difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness, and dementia, and can be life threatening.

How to protect yourself and help prevent the spread

  • Those at high-risk should test early and test often.
  • If you are pregnant, request testing for syphilis if it is not automatically offered.
  • If you test positive, share information about recent sexual partners with your healthcare provider to assist with contact tracing efforts to reduce the spread.
  • If you test positive, it is important to begin treatment as soon as possible and follow your course of treatment to completion

How soon do symptoms appear

  • Symptoms can appear from 10 to 90 days after a person becomes infected, but usually within three to four weeks.
  • Symptoms are often not noticed or are thought to be minor abrasions or heat rash and medical care is not sought.

When and for how long is a person able to spread syphilis

  • Syphilis is considered to be communicable for a period of up to two years, possibly longer. This depends on the existence of infectious lesions (sores), which may or may not be visible.
  • There is no natural immunity to syphilis and past infection offers no protection to the individual.

What is the treatment

  • Syphilis is treated with the antibiotics penicillin or tetracycline.
  • Pregnant people with a history of allergic reaction to penicillin should undergo penicillin desensitization followed by appropriate penicillin therapy.
  • A baby born with the disease needs daily penicillin treatment for 10 days.

What are the complications associated with syphilis

  • Untreated syphilis can lead to destruction of soft tissue and bone, heart failure, blindness and a variety of other conditions which may be mild to incapacitating.
  • A person with untreated syphilis may transmit the disease to their unborn child, which may result in death or deformity of the child.
  • Physicians and hospitals are required to test pregnant people for syphilis at prenatal visits. Tests of newborns or their mothers are required at the time of delivery.

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Syphilis in Tompkins County

Data for 2022 is the total for January through April, only.

Testing sites in Tompkins County

  • Your Primary Care Provider
  • Tompkins County Health Department (TCHD)
    • For everyone.
    • Free anonymous HIV testing only.
    • Results available in 20 minutes.
    • Phone (607) 274-6604. Click for Web site.
  • Planned Parenthood of Greater New York
    • For all Tompkins County residents.
    • Free, confidential testing and treatment at the PPGNY Ithaca office, 620 West Seneca St. (Made available by the Tompkins County Health Department)
    • Testing for Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, HepC, HIV, and Syphilis
    • Phone (607) 273-1513. Click for PPGNY's Ithaca Clinic Web site
  • REACH Medical
  • STAP — Southern Tier AIDS Program CLICK HERE for their website
  • Cornell Health, Cornell University
    • Comprehensive sexual health care for students, including free & confidential STI testing.
    • Phone (607) 255-5155. Learn more.
  • Hammond Health Center, Ithaca College
    • For Ithaca College students only.
    • STI education; testing available.
    • Phone (607) 274-3177
  • TC3 Health Center
    • No on-site STI testing available.
    • STD education and referrals only.
    • Phone (607) 844-8222 x 4487

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