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How did I get syphilis?

First off, let's dispel some myths...

  • You cannot catch syphilis from toilet seats or doorknobs or in gyms or swimming pools; it is a sexually transmitted infection.
  • Even though signs and symptoms will go away without treatment, syphilis has not gone away. You are not cured.
  • Syphilis is called the “great imitator” because it mimics the symptoms of many other infection. It also has many stages without symptoms. The only way to know if you have syphilis is to be tested.
  • There is no penile discharge or burning when you urinate with syphilis. Those are symptoms of other sexually transmitted infections or health concerns and should be checked by a doctor.

So... what is the story then?

Syphilis is a contact infection.  It is spread through direct, repeated contact with a chancre.  Your chancre will appear where you had contact with a partner's chancre.  On the penis, it is most often on or close to the head (glans) of your penis.  It can also be further down the shaft, on the scrotum, or in the genital area. Sometimes it has been mistaken for a hair bump, zipper cut or bite mark.  If you have an anal chancre, it might be inside your anal opening making it hard to spot and, because it doesn't hurt, you may never know you have it. The chancre might also be mistaken for an anal fissure or a hemorrhoid.  In fact, some men have even undergone surgery when the chancre would have gone away on its own.  The chancre can also be in your mouth, on your tongue or in your throat.

Remember, even when the symptoms go away, unless you have received the right medication, the infection will continue in your body.


Although a condom will generally prevent syphilis infection, it must be worn from the start of close physical contact.  If your partner has a chancre at the base of his shaft, on his scrotum or in the groin area, a condom will probably not protect you as it will not cover the chancre. A female condom will cover some of this area, but it would be better to wait to have sex until the syphilis has been treated and the chancre healed. It’s always smart to look before you leap – check your partner out, look their body over, asking about any sore or rash you may see, and then make a decision whether or not to engage in sexual contact. Avoid making assumptions. And for your own health and peace of mind, if you’re sexually active, make testing for syphilis a regular part of your routine.

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