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Syphilis (cont.)

What Increases Your Risk

Your risk of syphilis increases if you:

  • Have unprotected sex (do not use condoms or do not use them correctly). This risk is especially high among men who have sex with other men (MSM).5
  • Have multiple sex partners, particularly if you live in an area of the country where syphilis is more common.
  • Have a sex partner who has syphilis.
  • Have sex with a partner who has multiple sex partners.
  • Exchange sex for drugs or money.
  • Have human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection and engage in any of the behaviors listed above.

Syphilis is contagious whenever an open sore or skin rash is present. The risk of being infected with syphilis from a single sexual encounter with an infected partner is approximately 3% to 10%.6

Infection with syphilis also increases a person's risk of being infected with HIV. Syphilis causes open sores on the genitals that allow the HIV infection to enter the body easily. Syphilis is in general more common in people who are also infected with HIV.

When To Call a Doctor

Call to make an appointment if you:

  • Have sores, bumps, rashes, blisters, or warts on or around the genital or anal area or on any area of the body where you think they could be caused by a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
  • Think you have been exposed to a STI.

In most areas, public health clinics or health departments are able to diagnose and provide low-cost assessment and treatment of early syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

For more information about symptoms of other sexually transmitted infections, see the topic Exposure to Sexually Transmitted Infections.

Watchful waiting

Watchful waiting, which means taking a wait-and-see approach, is not appropriate if you think you were exposed to or have syphilis or another sexually transmitted infection (STI). Any symptoms or other changes that suggest syphilis or another STI should be evaluated by a doctor. If you suspect a syphilis infection:

  • Make an appointment with your doctor. Early treatment can reduce the complications of syphilis and prevent the spread of the infection to others.
  • Do not have sexual intercourse or other sexual contact until you have been treated by a doctor.

If you are diagnosed with syphilis, your sex partner(s) will need to be treated also.

All states require doctors to report newly diagnosed cases of syphilis (all stages) to health authorities.

Who to see

Your primary doctor can diagnose and treat syphilis.

Health professionals who can diagnose and treat sexually transmitted infections (STIs) include:

Complications of secondary or later stage syphilis may require treatment by an infectious disease specialist.


In most areas, public health clinics or county health departments are able to diagnose and provide low-cost or free treatment of early syphilis and other STIs.

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.


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