a microscopic image of syphilis

Syphilis Risk Factors

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that has declined in prevalence over the past few decades, but it still poses a threat to sexually active people. Early stage syphilis is easily cured with the antibiotic penicillin; however, if left untreated and unchecked, syphilis can damage the vital organs and even prove fatal.

Common Risk Factors

Common risk factors for syphilis include unprotected sex, sex with a new partner whose sexual history and health status are unknown, sex with multiple partners, being a male who is having sex with other men, HIV+ status, and pregnancy.

Sexual Risk Factors

Unprotected sex and sex with a partner whose health status and sexual history is unknown put you at risk for syphilis. This is because the infection can be spread even when it seems dormant and there are no visible sores or marks on the body to indicate the presence of the disease. In rare cases, kissing and touching can also spread syphilis.

The best way to avoid this risk factor entirely is to always use a physical-barrier form of contraception like condoms or dental dams, and always talk to your sexual partners about their current health status and their sexual history. If possible, have your partner visit a health clinic for STD testing before intimacy occurs. If your partner has had unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners whose status is also unknown, insist on protection during any and all intimate activities to avoid risk of contracting syphilis or other STDs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recently reported increased rates of syphilis among men who have sex with men (MSM), especially in major U.S. cities. This risk can be reduced through the correct use of contraceptives like condoms and dental dams.

HIV Risk Factors

If you are HIV positive, you are at a higher risk for syphilis because HIV suppresses your immune system and makes it tougher for your body to fight bacterial infections. If you are HIV positive, you need to be especially vigilant about engaging in intimate activity with trusted, tested partners and avoiding unprotected sex.

Pregnancy Risks

If you are pregnant, there is a risk of transferring syphilis to your baby during the birth process. If you are pregnant and suspect you might have syphilis, speak with your health care provider immediately to determine the best course of action to prevent the spread of the disease to your unborn child.

Last Updated: February 11, 2016