Screening for syphilis is more important than ever

What is syphilis?

Syphilis has had many names throughout history, and countries often dubbed the disease by their neighbors’ name. For example, in France, syphilis was know as the italian disease. In Germany, they referred to it as the polish disease, and vice versa. However, syphilis is far from being merely a historical anecdote. With around 500 new cases reported every year in Quebec, syphilis remains a live issue to this day.

Syphilis is caused by a bacterial infection from treponema pallidum, a very treatable bacterium when diagnosed early, but that can yield severe consequences if left untreated.

Did you know …?

  • Many famous characters have suffered from syphilis, from Al Capone to Beaudelaire and Schubert!
  • As for any bacterial infection, it is possible to contract syphilis more than once.
  • If you have tested positive for syphilis once, your subsequent screening results will stay abnormal. Your doctor will then have to measure the levels of antibodies present to detect a reactivation.
  • Syphilis is easily treatable with penicillin.
  • While many bacterial infections can and do become resistant to antibiotic treatment, syphilis has no known resistant strains.
  • Syphilis may also be treated with alternative antibiotics when a patient presents an allergy to penicillin.
  • The consequences of an untreated syphilitic infection can occur decades after its transmission and cause irreversible damages.
  • Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PREP) does not protect against syphilis.

How is syphilis transmitted?

The infection is transmitted through sexual contact, with or without penetration. The incubation period may vary from 10 to 90 days, but symptoms often go undetected, or do not occur at all. Many patients are asymptomatic and unknowingly spread the infection, hence the importance of screening. 

Syphilis has three stages, called primary, secondary or tertiary, depending of its evolution stage. Tertiary syphilis is nowadays quite rare thanks to the advancement of modern medicine and early screening. During the first stage of the infection, a single sore appears at the location where syphilis entered the body. The sore, which may be as large as 1 cm of diameter, is usually firm, round, and painless. Spontaneous healing will happen within 2 months, whether or not the individual is treated. However, if the infected individual does not receive adequate treatment he/she remains contagious and the infection progresses.

In men, the syphilis sore usually appears in the glans but can manifest elsewhere. In women, the sore is commonly found on the genitals but also on the cervix. The sore is painless and will heal spontaneously.

If left untreated, syphilis will evolve. After ten to even thirty years, severe complications can affect the skin, bones and nervous system.

Screening and Diagnosis

If your test is positive

Upon meeting a professional of our team, you will have time to discuss your sexual health issues before proceeding to a screening test. Routine sexually transmitted disease screening include syphilis. Results are readily communicated upon reception from laboratory. If syphilis is confirmed, a follow-up will be required to ensure adequate treatments. 


An antibiotic treatment will be prescribed, most commonly in the form of penicillin injections. It will then be important to have protected sexual contacts until remission to avoid transmitting the infection to your partner.

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