Can You Get a Syphilis Sore on Your Hand?

February 26, 2024

According to data pulled from 2024 statistics on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), provided by the Centers for Disease Control, Knoxville ranked 31st of 100 U.S. cities with the highest rates of disease. Across the South, the rates are skyrocketing.

In the 1950s rates of syphilis were high, but by 2000 – 2001, they had dropped to historic lows. Since then, however, rates have been increasing. Today’s rates of infection coupled with a gap in care are causing alarm among infectious disease experts. Doctors have become so unfamiliar with the signs and symptoms of congenital syphilis that they fail to recognize the deadly infection in newborns. But doctors aren’t alone, the average person can also struggle to recognize syphilis or understand its implications.

What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that spreads through sexual contact between two people. Most cases in the U.S. are among men (or those assigned male at birth) who are gay, bisexual, and those who have sex with other men. The cause of infection is the corkscrew-shaped bacteria Treponema pallidum. There are four stages of syphilis, each with its own set of symptoms and characteristics, though stages can overlap. A common question that arises is whether syphilis sores appearing on the body are contagious.

Stages of Syphilis

The four stages of syphilis are:

  1. Primary (or early)
    • Roughly 3-6 weeks after infection
  2. Secondary (stage 2)
    • Beginning one to six months after infection
  3. Latent (often called the hidden stage)
    • ‘Early’ latent stage is when the initial infection occurred within the previous 12 months and the person is still infectious.
    • ‘Late’ latent stage is when the infection occurred more than 12 months in the past and this stage may last for as long as 20 years.
  4. Tertiary (or late)
    • 30%-40% of untreated infections may reach this stage 10-30 years after infection. This stage can have profound impacts on multiple organ systems including the nervous system, heart, eyes, ears, spinal cord, liver, bones, joints, and liver.

In the primary stage of syphilis, a highly contagious chancre (or sore) appears on the body. If someone else’s skin comes into direct contact with a syphilis sore on your hand, there is a risk of transmitting the infection. It’s essential to remember that syphilis spreads primarily through sexual contact, but it can also be transmitted through non-sexual means with direct contact. Most often, though, syphilis is transmitted through oral, vaginal, or anal sex.

The rash of secondary syphilis may appear as rough, red, or reddish-brown spots both on the palms (palmar lesions) of the hands and the bottoms of the feet (plantar lesions). However, rashes with a different appearance may occur on other parts of the body mimicking rashes caused by other diseases. Sometimes secondary syphilis rashes are so faint that they go unnoticed.

Stage three is called the hidden stage because the person does not feel or see anything wrong. Unexpectedly, symptoms vanish leaving no visible traces of the infection, but it is still lurking below the surface and could resurface at any moment.

Syphilis can take a tragic turn as latent syphilis transitions into tertiary syphilis—and it can take years for the problems to show up.

You cannot get syphilis through casual contact with objects, such as:

  • toilet seats
  • doorknobs
  • swimming pools
  • hot tubs
  • bathtubs
  • sharing clothing, or eating utensils

How Is It Treated?

Syphilis is treated with antibiotics with penicillin delivered intramuscularly being the preferred choice. Congenital syphilis is what syphilis is called when a pregnant woman is infected. Pregnant women can only receive penicillin as the only other common antibiotic used to treat syphilis, doxycycline, can lead to serious birth defects. If syphilis remains undiscovered until after the primary stage, additional shots may be needed, or a 28-day course of doxycycline.

Who is Most at Risk for Syphilis?

Anyone sexually active can get syphilis, but your risk is higher if you:

  • Have unprotected sex, especially if you have/have had more than one partner
  • Are a man who has sex with men (MSM)
  • Have HIV
  • Have had sex with someone who’s tested positive for syphilis
  • Tested positive for another sexually transmitted infection (STI), such as chlamydia, gonorrhea or herpes

Avoiding Reinfection

Anyone undergoing treatment for syphilis should avoid any form of sex for 7 days and until all sores are healed to prevent spreading the infection to others. A follow-up blood test with a health provider is important to make sure treatment has been successful. You should notify all sexual partners so they may undergo testing and begin necessary treatment to avoid passing it back and forth. Remember, there is no immunity imparted once someone has had syphilis—it is a bacterium that can reinfect you at any time.

The only way to avoid syphilis reinfection is by practicing abstinence. If you do have sex, make sure to use latex or polyurethane condoms and dental dams. Your local health department may offer partner services. These help you notify your sexual partners that they may be infected so they can seek testing and treatment.

Visit AFC Urgent Care Chapman Highway if you think you may have contracted an STD. Our team is fully equipped to help you with your recovery!

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