Syphilis is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It is passed on via vaginal, oral and anal sex as well as non-penetrative bodily contact and the sharing of sex toys. It can be difficult to detect as many carriers don't show signs of infection, however, left untreated, it can cause serious health issues. Syphilis is divided into different stages - primary, secondary, latent and tertiary - and each stage can have different symptoms.
Left untreated, syphilis can cause serious and life-threatening problems and even death. It can spread to the brain, nervous system or heart causing dementia, paralysis or heart attacks and can prove fatal 10-30 years after infection. Untreated syphilis in pregnant women leads to the death of 40% of babies (either stillborn or dying shortly after birth).
If you have unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex, share sex toys or have non-penetrative intimate contact with someone who has syphilis, then you are at risk of catching it. Many carriers have no symptoms at all so it's impossible to know if they - or you - are infected unless you get tested.
Last updated June 1, 2018