Do women have different signs and symptoms of syphilis than men?
I know that men usually have a sore on their penis if they have syphilis. What about women? When it comes to syphilis, do women have different signs and symptoms than men?
Eric Christoff, MD, AAHIVM on September 20, 2011
Thanks for your insightful question. You’re right…we often hear more about syphilis symptoms in men. So, what about syphilis symptoms in women?
In women, syphilis symptoms are similar to those seen in men…but the locations of infection are different. For example, primary syphilis (the first stage of the disease) is marked by a small, firm sore called a "chancre" at the site of infection (where the bacteria entered the body). However, these sores can difficult to spot in women because they often occur on the vulva, in the vagina, on the cervix, on the anus, in the rectum or in the mouth.
Men, on the other hand, are more likely to notice a chancre on their penis. Although, depending on the site of infection, they could also have a chancre on the anus, in the rectum, or in the mouth.
Women and men typically experience secondary syphilis symptoms – most often a red rash – the same way. Likewise, signs and symptoms of late stage syphilis are also similar in women and men.
If syphilis is untreated during the first two stages of the disease, it can progress to the latent stage. Although there are no symptoms in this stage, the syphilis bacteria is still in the body and, with time, it can cause permanent damage without treatment. In late-stage syphilis, damage to the heart and nervous system are common, as is blindness and dementia.
One more thing to keep in mind…
In both men and women, symptoms of syphilis are easy to confuse for symptoms of other conditions. Syphilis can often go unrecognized, so the only way to know for sure whether you have syphilis is to get tested. And if you have reason to believe that you’re at risk for syphilis, testing for other common STDs – particularly HIV – is also a good idea. Why? Because having syphilis makes it easier to contract and transmit HIV.
To learn more about syphilis symptoms, testing and treatment, you may be interested to read through our Expert Guide to Syphilis.
Thanks again for coming to us with your great question.
Dr. Christoff is a practicing physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, as well as Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. His areas of expertise include the treatment of HIV and syphilis along with other STDs, the medical treatment of depression and chronic fatigue, and the specific health needs of gay and lesbian patients. Dr. Christoff was educated at the University of Toledo, College of Medicine and completed his residency at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, IL.