Is there a test for syphilis? Can it be cured?
I’m wondering about syphilis testing options, if any. I thought I got tested for all STDs when I saw my doctor the last time, but a friend told me that I have to make a point to tell my doctor that I want to get tested. What’s true? And can syphilis be cured?
Eric Christoff, MD, AAHIVM on September 20, 2011
I'm glad that you asked these great questions, and I'll do my best to help.
Yes, there are a couple of different syphilis tests available…one is a blood test that looks for antibodies that develop to fight a syphilis infection. If you have a syphilis infection, it usually takes about two weeks for the body to produce detectable antibodies…but this test is most reliable about six weeks after exposure to syphilis.
Another type of test – darkfield microscopy – can only be done at a doctor's office. If a doctor has the right equipment, a sample from a syphilis sore (also called a "chancre") can be examined under a microscope to see if the syphilis bacteria is present.
If you’re not sure what STDs – if any – you were tested for, be sure to ask your doctor. Your friend is right: most doctors don’t automatically test for common STDs during routine check-ups. So it's a good idea to ask your doctor for each specific test you want (for example, we test for gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes 1 & 2, hepatitis C, hepatitis B, HIV and syphilis).
Can syphilis be cured? Yes...syphilis can be cured with antibiotics.
That said, early detection is key. Untreated syphilis can eventually cause permanent complications – from blindness or nerve problems, to dementia or paralysis.
If the disease progresses to such advanced, late stage, any damage to the body caused by the infection prior to treatment is permanent...but treatment is still a good idea. You can learn more in our Expert Guide to Syphilis.
One more thing…
If you're sexually active, especially if you’re not in a mutually monogamous relationship with someone whose STD status you know…it's important to get tested regularly for syphilis and other common STDs. Why? So that, if you test positive for an STD, you can get treated early before potentially more serious health complications have a chance to develop.
To learn more about syphilis and other STDs – including what puts you at risk for STDs, as well as testing options and prevention techniques, see our Expert Guide to STD Basics.
Thanks again for writing in, and for being proactive about your health!
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.