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Syphilis & MSM (Men Who Have Sex with Men)
Once nearly eliminated in the U.S., syphilis is increasing, especially among gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM).
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
To view print version: CDC - Syphilis & MSM (Men Who Have Sex With Men) Fact Sheet
- What is syphilis?
- Should I be concerned about syphilis?
- How could I get syphilis?
- What does syphilis look like?
- How common is syphilis among MSM?
- How can I reduce my risk of getting syphilis?
- How do I know if I have syphilis?
- How will my doctor know if I have syphilis?
- What is the link between syphilis and HIV?
- Can syphilis be cured?
- I’ve been treated. Can I get syphilis again?
- Where can I get more information?
Syphilis is divided into stages (primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary), and there are different signs and symptoms associated with each stage. A person with primary syphilis generally has a sore or sores at the original site of infection. These sores usually occur on or around the genitals, around the anus or in the rectum, or in or around the mouth. These sores are usually (but not always) firm, round, and painless. Symptoms of secondary syphilis include skin rash, swollen lymph nodes, and fever. The signs and symptoms of primary and secondary syphilis can be mild, and they might not be noticed. During the latent stage, there are no signs or symptoms. Tertiary syphilis is associated with severe medical problems and is usually diagnosed by a doctor with the help of multiple tests. It can affect the heart, brain, and other organs of the body.
A detailed description of each stage of syphilis can be found on CDC’s syphilis fact sheet.
Between 2018 and 2019, the number of reported primary and secondary (P&S) cases in the United States increased by 11%, and there were 38,992 P&S syphilis cases reported in 2019. Most (57%) of these cases were among MSM.
The only way to avoid getting syphilis or other STDs is to not have anal, oral, or vaginal sex.
If you are sexually active, doing the following things will lower your chances of getting syphilis:
- Being in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested for syphilis and does not have syphilis.
- Using latex condoms the right way every time you have sex. Condoms prevent the spread of syphilis by preventing contact with a sore. Sometimes sores can occur in areas not covered by a condom. Contact with these sores can still transmit syphilis.
Having syphilis once does not protect you from getting it again. Even after you’ve been successfully treated, you can still be reinfected. Only laboratory tests can confirm whether you have syphilis. Follow-up testing by your healthcare provider is recommended to make sure that your treatment was successful.
Because syphilis sores can be painless and hidden in the vagina, anus, under the foreskin of the penis, or in the mouth, it may not be obvious that a sex partner has syphilis. Unless you know that all of your sex partner(s) have been tested and treated, you may be at risk of getting syphilis again from an infected partner.
Syphilis - Fact Sheet
STD information and referrals to STD Clinics
CDC-INFO (disponible en español)
CDC National Prevention Information Network (NPIN)
P.O. Box 6003
Rockville, MD 20849-6003
American Sexual Health Association (ASHA)
P. O. Box 13827
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709-3827
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines, 2015. MMWR Recomm Rep 2015;64(No. RR-3).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance, 2018. Atlanta, GA: Department of Health and Human Services; October 2019.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Primary and Secondary Syphilis Among Men Who Have Sex With Men – New York City, 2001. MMWR 2002;51(38);853.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Primary and Secondary Syphilis – United States, 2003—2004. MMWR 2006;55(269-272).
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STD Increases Among Gay and Bisexual Men. Reported at 2000 National STD Prevention Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. December 2000.
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K. Holmes, P. Mardh, P. Sparling et al (eds). Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 3rd Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999, chapters 33-36.