Syphilis guide

Syphilis risk factors


How do people get infected with syphilis?

Anyone can get syphilis...usually through direct contact with an infectious lesion during sexual activity, including kissing or touching a person who has lesions in or around the genitals, on the lips or inside the mouth. The most common risk factors are:

  • A history of unprotected sex
  • A new sexual partner
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Men who have sex with men (MSM)
  • Pregnant women
  • Being HIV-positive

Due to reporting disparities and a number of other variables, there is a higher prevalence of syphilis among sexually active African-Americans. Generally-speaking, some ethnic/minority groups are more likely to use public clinics that report STD cases. As well, awareness of STDs and how to prevent them, and access to regular healthcare are inconsistent among populations that are disadvantaged by poverty and other social determinants...these groups may therefore be more likely to engage in risky sexual activity.

What are some ways that syphilis cannot be spread?

You cannot get syphilis from doorknobs, eating utensils, bath tubs, hot tubs, or swimming pools.

If I get syphilis once, is it possible to get it again?

Even if you've been treated for syphilis, you're not immune...you can be re-infected. That's why sexual partners should be treated at the same time so that an untreated partner still carrying the bacteria doesn't re-infect the treated partner.

Want to learn more?

Last reviewed by Lisa Oldson, MD, January 2011.

Lisa Oldson, MD

STD expert

"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."