What is Syphilis? Rising Cases in Humboldt County

The on-going COVID-19 pandemic has caused a drop of people getting regularly tested for STI/STDs. Humboldt County has reported dealing with high cases of the sexually transmitted diesease known as Syphilis within the past ten years. As of 2021, there are currently 75 provisional cases of Syphilis. 

Public health officials are urging folks to get tested because they are seeing diseases resurfacing, like congenital syphilis, which has been gone for over ten years. Congenital syphilis is when a mother transmits the infectious disease to their fetus before birth. 

El Leñador talked to Humboldt Health and Services Department public health nurse, Daniel Tran, and Health Education Lead, Mira B. Friedman, about the sexually transmitted infection known as syphilis. 

What is Syphilis? 

According to the Center for Diseases Control syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause serious health problems if not treated right away. Unlike other STIs, syphilis is capable of causing severe damage to your body and brain. 

Exposure and Symptoms 

Exposure to syphilis occurs by skin to skin contact. Meaning you can be exposed through anal, oral, and vaginal sex with your sexual partner. The most common symptoms are sores that can be found on your genitals, lips, and inside your mouth. 

Syphilis is divided into different stages. The stages come with their own different signs and symptoms associated with the stage.

Primary stage 

During the primary stage of syphilis, you could notice a single sore or multiple sores. The sores are located where the syphilis entered your body. The sores are sometimes firm, round, and painless, sometimes going unnoticed by the individual. 

These sores usually will last three to six weeks and will heal regardless of the treatment status of syphilis. You must still recieve treatment regardless if the sores are gone. This will stop your infection from continuing on to the secondary stage.  

Secondary stage 

During the secondary stage, you might develop skin rashes and/or mucous membrane lesions. Mucous membrane lesions are sores in your mouth, vagina or anus. This stage usually starts with one to many rashes on your body. The rash can show up when your primary sore is healing or several weeks after the sore is healed. The rash can look rough, red, or reddish brown spots on the palms of your hands and or the bottom of your feet. The rash usually won’t itch and it is sometimes so faint that it can go unnoticed. 

Other symptoms include:

  • Fever 
  • Swollen lymph 
  • Sore throat 
  • Patchy hair loss 
  • Weight loss 
  • Muscle aches and fatigue 

The symptoms will go away regardless of treatment status of syphilis. Without the correct treatment, your infection will move on to the latent and possibly tertiary stages of syphilis. 

Latent stage

The latent stage of syphilis is a period of time when there are no visible signs or symptoms of syphilis. If you do not receive treatment, you can continue to have syphilis in your body for years without showing any signs or symptoms. 

Tertiary stage 

Most people who have untreated syphilis do not develop tertiary syphilis. However, when it occurs it can affect many different organ systems in your body. This includes your heart and blood vessels, and your brain and nervous system. Tertiary syphilis is very serious as it occurs 10-30 years after your infection first began. 

Neurosyphilis and Ocular Syphilis

Without the correct treatment for syphilis it can spread to the brain and nervous system (neurosyphilis) or go to the eyes (ocular syphilis). This can occur during any of the stages described above.  

The symptoms of neurosyphilis include:

  • Severe headache
  • Difficulty coordinating muscle movements
  • Paralysis (not able to move certain parts of your body)
  • Numbness
  • Dementia (mental disorder)

Symptoms of ocular syphilis include changes in your vision and even blindness.

Is syphilis curable?

Yes. Syphilis can be cured with the right antibiotics from your healthcare provider.

 “Syphilis is in fact curable,” Tran said. “It’s one of the STIs that are terrible, the sooner somebody gets treated for it, the less of a problem that becomes.”

Who should get tested? 

The CDC recommends that anyone who is having unprotected sex should get tested. As well as men who engage in sex with other men, and if you have had partner(s) who have tested postive for syphilis. Pregnant women are also advised to go get syphilis tested during their first prenatal visit. Syphilis cases in pregnant women can lead to stillbirths, miscarriages, and birth defects. 


The most common test to see if a person has syphilis is a blood test. Some health care providers will diagnose syphilis by testing fluid from a syphilis sore. Only laboratory tests can confirm whether you have syphilis. Follow-up testing by your healthcare provider is recommended to make sure that your treatment was successful.

It is important to know that having syphilis does not protect you from being re-infected. Even after you’ve been successfully treated, you can still be re-infected. 

It is also important to get tested because syphilis in your partner(s) may not be visible or obvious. Syphilis sores can hide in the vagina, anus, under the foreskin of the penis or in the mouth. Unless you know that your sex partner(s) has been tested and treated, you may be at risk of getting syphilis from an infected sex partner.


Cal Poly Humboldt Student Health Center offers screening, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) based on current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Call (707) 826-3146 for a confidential appointment to discuss your concerns about STI screening, testing, and treatment.

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