What if syphilis is untreated?
Left undiagnosed and untreated, the first three stages of syphilis evolve into its final, most serious stage...often decades after the initial exposure. In this tertiary stage, internal lesions and other long-term complications from the bacteria can result in damage to the nerves and arteries, heart problems, seizures or paralysis, speech and hearing impairment, blindness, dementia and other serious illnesses...even death. That's why getting tested is so important.
Syphilis and HIV
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with syphilis are two to five times more likely to get HIV, the virus that causes AIDS...and anyone with syphilis should be also be tested for HIV.
In general, someone who has one STD is at greater risk for infection with other STDs, including HIV. That's because STDs that cause ulcers, sores, or otherwise break the skin or mucous membranes make carriers more susceptible to infection...also, people with one or more STDs may have a weakened immune system that makes them more vulnerable to other diseases.
Syphilis and pregnancy
In the latent stage of syphilis, there's a risk that a mother infected by the bacteria can transmit it to her baby (congenital syphilis) which can cause physical deformity and neurological complications in the baby, or stillbirth...according to the CDC, untreated syphilis in pregnant women results in infant death in up to 40% of cases. But complications from syphilis in pregnancy can be greatly reduced by early testing and treatment with antibiotics.
If you're pregnant and concerned about syphilis, be sure to consult your regular doctor.
Last reviewed by Lisa Oldson, MD, January 2011.
Lisa Oldson, MD
"The first thing I tell a patient about STDs is that if you're worried about one STD, you should probably worry about all STDs. In other words, if you had unprotected sex and you're worried about a possible HIV exposure, it's important to understand that hepatitis can be spread in the same fashion...ditto for chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes and syphilis."