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What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that is treatable with medication. Without treatment syphilis can cause serious health problem, possibly leading to permanent damage to the eyes, ears, brain, or heart.

Syphilis and MSM

All people who are sexually active can get syphilis. However, syphilis impacts same gender-loving men more than others.

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Syphilis During Pregnancy

Congenital syphilis (CS) occurs when a mother with syphilis passes the infection on to her baby during pregnancy. Syphilis testing and treatment as early as possible in the pregnancy can help prevent a baby from major CS complications.

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Toolkit for Healthcare Providers

Health care providers can play a critically important role in helping to reduce syphilis in suburban Cook County by taking the following actions: Report, Test & Diagnose, Stage & Treat, and Prevent.

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What is

Bicillin L-A® Shortage

The only medication available to treat pregnant people with syphilis and babies with congenital syphilis is in short supply. Healthcare providers are encouraged to prioritize Bicillin L-A® for these populations. Pfizer anticipates this shortage until early- to mid-2024.

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Syphilis is caused by a bacterium (Treponema pallidum) and spreads through direct contact with syphilis sores during sex and in general. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection. Syphilis sores can appear in the mouth and on the tongue and syphilis can be spread through oral sex. These sores can also occur on the penis, in the vagina and in and around the anus. They can be hard to see. To see what syphilis looks like and answers to frequently asked questions, click here.

Syphilis cases are on the rise in suburban Cook County (SCC) and other areas in our region.

Syphilis in suburban Cook County

In the past ten years, primary and secondary syphilis cases have more than doubled, from 91 in 2011 to 277 in 2021. From 2019 to 2021, primary and secondary syphilis cases increased 60%. We don’t know all of the reasons for this increase. One reason may be smartphone ‘hookup apps’ have made it easier for people to locate one another for sex. Having sex with a partner you don’t know well can be risky.

Who is Most At Risk For Syphilis



40% of syphilis cases are ages 20-29 years old



25% of primary and secondary syphilis cases are ages 20-24 years old



90% of primary and secondary syphilis cases in suburban Cook County are male



57% are non-Hispanic Black



22% are non-Hispanic White



16% are Hispanic/Latino

What sexually active people can do to prevent syphilis

To reduce the number of syphilis cases, we all need to work together: Health departments, health care providers, and everyone who is sexually active.

Get Tested

If you are a pregnant woman, a man who has sex with men (MSM), if you have HIV, or if your sex partner has been diagnosed with syphilis, you need to get tested. If you use hookup apps to find partners or if you have multiple partners, male or female, it’s important to get tested regularly.

Use Condoms

If you need condoms, let us know. We will mail them to you. Use condoms the right way every time you have oral, anal or vaginal sex including hookups arranged through an app.

Talk with us

We’re here to help, not make judgments. We can also help you notify your partners or notify them if you aren’t able to. If someone from the health department is trying to contact you, chances are it’s important. Find out what they have to say. We want everyone who is sexually active to be as healthy as possible and to be infection-free – and stay that way.

Get Treated 

Syphilis can be treated with antibiotics from your provider, and the earlier it’s diagnosed, the better. Untreated, syphilis can

  • spread to others;
  • make it more likely for you to get or spread HIV
  • spread from a mother to her unborn baby and cause a miscarriage, stillbirth (a baby born dead), deformed bones, or other severe health problems
  • cause other major health problems, even 30 years after the initial symptoms go away

What healthcare providers can do

Think syphilis

Ask whether your patients are sexually active and offer testing for syphilis, as well as HIV and other STIs when appropriate.

Know how to stage and treat syphilis

Ordering the right tests (e.g., BOTH RPR and FTA) and staging and treating syphilis can seem complex, especially if you are a provider who doesn’t see syphilis often. Click here for IDPH’s staging and treatment algorithm. Download CDC’s smartphone app for treating syphilis and other STIs by clicking Android  or iOS .

Give patients test results ASAP

The longer a patient with a syphilis infection waits for test results and treatment, the greater the chances are for the infection to spread.

Listen to an interpreting syphilis podcast

Listen to Dr. Kahlil Ghanem, a Johns Hopkins University Professor of Medicine and a syphilis expert, reviews how to monitor and interpret syphilis serological tests in an interview with Dr. David Spach, the National STD Curriculum Editor-in-Chief. Listen to the podcast here .

Use our online toolkit

Health care providers can play a critically important role in helping to reduce syphilis in suburban Cook County. Click here to view our Syphilis Toolkit for Healthcare Providers for reporting requirements and Morbidity Report Form, staging and treatment algorithms, and information to share with patients.

What CCDPH is doing to help reduce syphilis cases

  • Serving as a technical consultant for test ordering, staging, and current treatment guidelines
  • Talking with cases, help them to notify partners, and help individuals reduce risk
  • Providing condoms
  • Educating the public, providers and ourselves
  • Monitoring trends and intervene where we can
  • Helping folks get into primary care

Updated August 25, 2023, 12:26 PM