Syphilis natural history, complications and prognosis

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]; Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Aysha Anwar, M.B.B.S[2]; Nate Michalak, B.A.


Syphilis initially presents with the appearance of a painless chancre after 3-4 weeks of exposure. If left untreated, the chancre self resolves and the patient may progress to develop constitutional symptoms and a generalized symmetric rash in four to eight weeks. In less than 10% of individuals, complications such as hepatitis, iritis, nephritis, and neurological problems may develop at this stage. However, it resolves in four to eight weeks without treatment and patient enters into asymptomatic latent phase. About a quarter of patients may develop recurrence of similar symptoms in one year. If left untreated, 35% of patients may develop tertiary syphilis which include complications such as cardiovascular involvement, neurologic infection and gummatous lesions involving skin, bone and joints which is associated with significant morbidity and mortality. The prognosis of syphilis varies by stage of disease. Prognosis of primary and secondary syphilis is good with treatment. For tertiary syphilis, prognosis varies by site of involvement and duration of disease. 90% of patients with neurosyphilis respond to treatment. However, mortality rates are high with cardiovascular complications.[1][2][3][4]

Natural history

  • Painless chancre appears 3-4 weeks after exposure.
  • Chancre typically resolves, after which the patient may develop constitutional symptoms and generalized symmetric rash in 4 to 8 weeks.
    • In less than 10% of individuals, complications such as hepatitis, iritis, nephritis, and neurological problems may develop at this stage.
  • This stage is typically self limited to 4 to 8 weeks without treatment and patient enters into asymptomatic latent phase.
  • Approximately 25% of patients develop recurrent symptoms in one year.
  • Approximately 35% of patients develop tertiary syphilis, which includes the following complications:


Complications that can develop as a result of syphilis include:









Gummatous lesions


The prognosis of syphilis depends on the stage of disease:[1][2][3]

Primary and secondary syphilis

Prognosis is good with appropriate antimicrobial treatment and most patients will have full resolution of symptoms.

Tertiary syphilis

Prognosis varies by site of involvement and duration of disease:

  • 90% of patients with neurosyphilis respond to treatment.
  • Gummatous lesions reverse with treatment.
  • Mortality rates are high with cardiovascular complications.
  • 20% of patients with tertiary syphilis die of complications.


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