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STD: Syphilis

Syphilis pathogen

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a corkscrew-shaped bacteria called Treponema pallidum. The only way to be sure you don't have syphilis is through testing.

Is syphilis a threat in Wisconsin?

The number of syphilis cases in Wisconsin is increasing.

Recently released 2022 surveillance data, P-00415 (PDF) show a continued rise in cases in the state. Cases of syphilis increased 19% (1,608 to 1,916) from 2021 to 2022. Among those cases, congenital syphilis increased 81% (16 to 29) during this same time period. By comparison, Wisconsin had an average 0-2 congenital syphilis cases per year in the 2010’s.

Syphilis prevention is important. Untreated or inadequately treated syphilis can lead to severe long term health complications including blindness, deafness, severe birth defects and even death. For people living with HIV these severe complications can advance at a faster rate.

Health care professionals should go to the Health Care Professionals webpage for information on reporting STIs and other items.

Am I at risk for syphilis?

If you are having sex, you can get syphilis. You have a greater potential of contracting it if you are a:

  • Male identifying person who has sex with other male identifying people.
  • Person with any STI
  • Person with a sex partner who has an STI
  • Person with more than one sex partner
  • Person with a new sex partner
  • Person using social apps to find new sex partners

How can I avoid getting syphilis?

There are many ways to prevent getting syphilis. Practice safer sex:

  • Use condoms or dental dams every time you have sex. These barriers protect you and your partner from sexual fluids and some skin-to-skin contact, which can both spread STDs.
  • Get tested for STIs regularly. Most people with STDs don’t have symptoms or know they’re infected, and they can easily pass the infection to their partners. So testing is the only way to know for sure whether or not someone has an STD.
  • Have honest conversations around sexual history with your partner(s). Talk about past partners, history of STIs, and drug use before beginning sexual relations with a new partner. This can help you know about your risk and ways to prevent STIs.
  • Check your body frequently and be aware of your partner's body. Look for signs of a sore, blister, rash, or discharge.
  • Wash shared sex toys with soap and water before they touch another person’s body. You can also use condoms on sex toys — change the condom before it touches another person’s body.

Pregnant? Protect your baby from congenital syphilis

Tobacco Program image of pregnant person

Congenital syphilis is a bacterial infection that spreads easily from a pregnant person to their baby in the womb.

Congenital syphilis can have major health impacts on your baby

Congenital syphilis can cause:

  • Miscarriage (losing the baby during pregnancy).
  • Stillbirth (a baby born dead).
  • Prematurity (a baby born early).
  • Low birth weight.
  • Health issues for babies born with congenital syphilis, including:
    • Deformed bones.
    • Severe anemia (low blood count).
    • Enlarged liver and spleen.
    • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes).
    • Brain and nerve problems, like blindness or deafness.
    • Meningitis.
    • Skin rashes.
    • Death shortly after birth.

How it affects your baby’s health depends on how long you had syphilis and if — or when — you got treatment for the infection. Some babies with congenital syphilis won’t have any symptoms at birth. But without treatment, the baby may develop serious problems.

Congenital syphilis has been on the rise in Wisconsin

The number of congenital syphilis cases increased from two cases in 2019 to 29 cases 2022. That's a 1350% increase!

During 2022, there were 29 cases of reported congenital syphilis in newborns in Wisconsin. Of the cases where race was reported, over 50% of newborns with congenital syphilis were identified as Black. Racial and ethnic disparities persist in congenital syphilis cases among pregnant people. The most vulnerable populations include women between the ages of 20-35 and minoritized communities. It’s important to recognize that these disparities exist due to certain social and environmental factors that are historically at play like access to healthcare and economic resources.

Congenital syphilis is completely preventable! Get tested and treated.

Smiling child hugging a pregnant belly
  • Get a syphilis test when you know you are pregnant or at your first prenatal visit.
  • You should also get tested at 28 weeks of pregnancy and right after giving birth.
  • Talk with a doctor or health care provider about your risk for syphilis. Have an open and honest conversation about your sexual history and STD testing. They can give you the best advice on any testing and treatment that you may need.

It is easy to get treated if you test positive.

Testing and treatment

Find locations around the state where you can get tested; not all locations treat for syphilis.

Fact sheets

Learn more about the causes, risk factors, and treatment of syphilis:

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) fact sheet in English and Spanish.

Last revised November 27, 2023