Is Syphilis a Bloodborne Pathogen?

Is Syphilis a Bloodborne Pathogen?

In 2018, the combined cases of gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia in the United States reached all-time highs. Cases of syphilis among newborns, where the infection was contracted from the mother, increased by 40% between 2017 and 2018. While syphilis can be easily treated when it is caught early, the disease can wreak havoc on an individual's body if it is left untreated. What is syphilis and how is it transmitted? Is syphilis a bloodborne pathogen? Let's take a look at everything you need to know.

What Is Syphilis?

Syphilis is because by Treponema pallidum, Which is a type of bacteria. It is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can have serious health consequences if it is not treated adequately. There were more than 88,000 cases of syphilis reported in the US in 2016. The rate of cases of syphilis in women has been on the decline in the United States. However, the rate has been rising among men, particularly among men who engage in sexual activities with other men. People commonly do not notice the first sign of syphilis immediately. This is because it appears as a painless and small sore known as a chancre. The solar can appear inside the mouth, on the sexual organs, or on the rectum. It is possible for an individual to have syphilis without displaying any symptoms for years. For this reason, it can be difficult to diagnose. It is important to discover syphilis as early as possible, as untreated syphilis can lead to significant damage to vital organs such as the brain and the heart. Syphilis transmission occurs through direct contact with chancres of a syphilitic type. It is important to understand that this infection cannot be transmitted by wearing another person's clothes, chairing a toilet with another person, or sharing eating utensils with another person. When the chancre is present, syphilis is highly contagious. It can be passed through direct contact, infected blood, and it can be passed on by pregnant women to their unborn baby.

The History of Syphilis

The first outbreak of syphilis that was recorded to have occurred in Europe happened between 1494 and 1495 during a French invasion in Naples, Italy. Since this disease was spread by French troops, it became known as "French disease." The term "syphilis" was first applied in 1530 by the Italian poet and physician Girolamo Fracastoro. The bacteria that causes syphilis was not identified until 1905, when it was discovered by Erich Hoffmann and Fritz Schaudinn. Sahachiro Hata developed the first effective treatment in 1910, known as Salvarsan. It is unclear where the exact origin of syphilis comes from. However, there are two main hypotheses. The first is that the disease was carried to Europe from the American continents by Christopher Columbus's cruise. The second proposes that the disease had existed in Europe previously but simply went without recognition. The news of the discovery of syphilis spread quickly, as it was the first disease to be discovered following the invention of the printing press. On top of this, it was the first of these to be recognized widely as being spread by sexual activity. For this reason, having the disease was considered to be indicative of an individual's moral state.

Is Malaria Still a Syphilis?

Malaria is not syphilis, but they are both blood-borne pathogens. Malaria is a blood-borne pathogen that can affect humans as well as other animals. It is a mosquito-borne infectious disease, whose symptoms typically begin 10 to 15 days after an individual has been bitten by a mosquito that is infected. Between the 1920s and the 1950s, syphilitic infections were treated with malaria induced fevers. The treatment involved raising an individual's body temperature by injecting Plasmodium vivax malaria into patients who are suffering from advanced stages of syphilis. It would typically take giving patients successive rounds of this treatment to fully eradicate the infectious bacteria. At the same time, patients would be treated for the malarial infection with quinine. It was very risky to manage these fevers as malarial fevers can lead to death. At the time, however, there was no other viable treatment for this terminal and proliferate disease. Until the discovery that penicillin was a more effective and safer treatment in the 1940s, this procedure was used for advanced stages of syphilis.

What Are Bloodborne Pathogens?

Blood-borne pathogens are infectious microorganisms, such as bacteria or viruses, that can cause diseases in people. They are found in human blood. Some of the most well-known blood-borne pathogens include:

  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Hepatitis C (HCV)
  • Hepatitis B (HBV)
  • Malaria
  • Syphilis
  • Brucellosis

Workers might be exposed to blood-borne pathogens due to needle sticks or other injuries caused by sharp objects. There are many occupations in which workers might be at risk for exposure to blood-borne pathogens, including healthcare personnel, first responders, and even housekeeping personnel in some industries. Blood-borne pathogens can be transmitted to other people through contact with infected blood as well as other possibly infectious bodily fluids. You can learn more about pathogens here.

Is Syphilis a Bloodborne Pathogen?

Yes, syphilis is a blood-borne pathogen. Caused by the bacteria treponema pallidum, syphilis occurs in four stages. Do you need bloodborne pathogen training? You can learn whether or not you're at-risk in your industry here.

The Stages of Syphilis Infection

There are four different stages of syphilis. These stages are the primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary stages. During the first two stages, syphilis is most infectious. During the latent stage of the disease, the disease is still active but it is common for individuals to not experience any symptoms. The most destructive stage in a person's health is the tertiary stage.


Occurring roughly 3 to four weeks after the bacteria has been contracted, the primary stage begins with a chancre. This is a painless, small, round sore. Though it typically doesn't cause any pain, the sore is highly infectious. The chancre might appear at the place where the bacteria enter the body, such as honor inside the genitals, the mouth, or the rectum. It can take between 10 and ninety days for the sword to appear, though, on average, it shows up roughly 3 weeks after the infection occurred. The sore can last for anywhere between two and six weeks. Transmission of syphilis typically occurs during sexual activity as it is transmitted through direct contact with a chancre.


During the second stage of syphilis, a sore throat and skin rashes might develop. The rash can occur anywhere on the body, but it is typically found on the soles and the palms. It is not uncommon for individuals to not even notice the rash before it subsides. There are other symptoms of secondary syphilis. These might include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Headaches
  • Hair loss
  • Aching joints

Whether or not a person receives treatment, the symptoms will go away. If syphilis is not treated, however, a person still has syphilis even once the symptoms are no longer there. It is common for secondary syphilis to be confused with or mistaken for a different condition or disorder.


The latent stage of syphilis is also known as the hidden stage. This is when there are not any noticeable symptoms of the disease. At the same time, though, the bacteria is still present in the body. The latent stage of syphilis can last for several years before it moves on to the stage known as tertiary syphilis.


Roughly 15 to thirty percent of individuals who do not receive any treatment for the disease will enter the tertiary stage. This stage of syphilis can occur years or even decades after an individual has initially become infected. It can be life-threatening and include other severe symptoms such as:

  • Deafness
  • Blindness
  • Memory loss
  • Mental illness
  • Neurological disorders like meningitis or stroke
  • Destruction of bone and soft tissue
  • Neurosyphilis, which is an infection of the spinal cord or brain
  • Heart disease

While it is rare for people to advance to the tertiary stage of syphilis, it can be fatal. Depending on the organ system affected, the symptoms of tertiary syphilis can vary between people. Neurosyphilis is an infection of the spinal cord or brain. It can cause a wide range of symptoms, including altered behavior, paralysis, headaches, sensory deficits, and dementia. Another potential consequence of syphilis is ocular syphilis, which can occur at any of the infection stages. Involving almost any of the structures of the eye, the symptoms include decreased visual acuity, vision changes, and permanent blindness.

How Is Syphilis Diagnosed?

It's important to go to your doctor as soon as possible if you think that you might have syphilis. They will be able to take a blood sample and run tests on the samples. They also are able to conduct a physical examination. If a doctor finds that you have a sore, they might take a sample in order to test whether or not the bacteria associated with syphilis is present in the sore. If your doctor believes that you might have tertiary syphilis and related nervous system issues, you might need a spinal tap or lumbar puncture. If you are pregnant, your doctor might test for syphilis because it's possible that the bacteria are present in your system without your knowledge. They won't want to know whether or not you have syphilis because congenital syphilis in a fetus can cause severe damage and even be fatal.

When Are You at Increased Risk of Syphilis Transmission?

Certain individuals are at a higher risk of acquiring syphilis. Some of the most common risk factors include:

  • Multiple sex partners, particularly true among anonymous partners who meet online
  • Inconsistent condom use
  • Men who have sex with men (these account for roughly 60% of syphilis infections in the US)
  • Intravenous drug use

Syphilis is a disorder that can affect anyone, but these risk factors will increase the chance that you become infected. If you have anonymous or multiple sex partners, you should be screened for sexually transmitted diseases more often, such as every 3 to 6 months.

Syphilis Protection

Practicing safe sex is the best way to prevent syphilis. During any type of sexual contact, you should use condoms. On top of this, you should avoid sharing sex toys, get screened for SDIs and the communicative with your partner, and use a condom or dental dam during oral sex. If using injected drugs, it's also important to never share needles. This is because syphilis can also be transmitted this way.

Syphilis Treatment

Syphilis in the primary and secondary stages can be easily treated with penicillin. One of the most widely used antibiotics, penicillin is typically effective in treating this condition. There are other antibiotics that can be used for people who are allergic to penicillin, such as, ceftriaxone, azithromycin, and doxycycline. For individuals who have neurosyphilis, they will need to get intravenous doses of penicillin every day. Typically, these patients will have to send the hospital for a brief period of time. While the bacteria can be killed, but the damage that has already been caused by the late stages of syphilis cannot be reversed. It's important to avoid all sexual contact with others during treatment until your doctor said that it is safe to resume sexual activity. If you have a sexual partner, it's important that they are also treated.

Are You at Risk of Coming in Contact With Bloodborne Pathogens?

Now that you know the answer to "is syphilis a bloodborne pathogen?" it can help you to understand whether or not you need bloodborne pathogen training. Do you or your employees work in a setting by which they might be exposed to bloodborne pathogens or other materials that could potentially be infectious? Physicians, EMTs, nurses, lab workers, dentists, tattoo artists, and more are all occupations where there is a risk of coming into contact with bloodborne pathogens. Take a look at our bloodborne pathogen training here.