Are Syphilis Sores on Your Hand Contagious?

February 26, 2024

Syphilis infection rates have risen to their highest levels since the 1950s and the Charlotte area has the highest incidences in the state of North Carolina. Charlotte is ranked 13th in the nation of 100 cities studied.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that conjures up images of painful sores and which spreads through sexual contact between two people. Most cases in the U.S. are diagnosed 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.

How is Syphilis Spread Between People?

Transmission between people typically occurs via vaginal, anal, or oral sex. In the first stage of syphilis, the primary stage, the incubation period can last from 10 days to three months. In that time, a small sore known as a chancre typically appears at the spot where the bacterium enters the body. This sore is often painless, firm, and might mimic a pimple or a blister. It can be unseen, especially if it’s located in a hard-to-see area, or between folds of skin. Transmission of the bacteria is through close skin-to-skin contact. Direct contact with a sore is how the bacterium spreads. While quite rare, it is possible to contract syphilis from a kiss if the infected person has a lesion in their mouth.

The primary stage of syphilis is highly contagious, regardless of where the sore appears on the body. This means that if an individual comes into direct contact with the syphilis sore on their hand and then touches someone else, 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 if there is direct contact with an open sore or lesion.

Does Syphilis Have Any Consequences?

If untreated, syphilis can progress to its secondary stage, where a rash may develop on the body, including the palms of the hands (palmar lesions) and the soles of the feet (plantar lesions). The rash can take on a red, rough texture, or it may be so mild it is imperceptible. While the rash itself is not typically contagious, the presence of any syphilis sores or lesions in these areas can still pose a considerable risk of transmission if there is direct contact. The outbreak may take weeks to heal. This stage can last for a couple of years, and the rash and sores may or may not reappear.

In the third “latent” stage of syphilis, it appears as if one has no infection at all. All signs of the illness recede, yet one is still infected. This stage can last for a decade or more. Antibiotics taken any time after a positive blood test will eradicate the infection.

The last stage of untreated syphilis, Tertiary, is rare, but it is the most dangerous. After the latent stage, up to 30% to 40% of people with syphilis who don’t get treatment have complications known as tertiary syphilis. Another name for it is late syphilis.

These problems may appear mysterious and appear 10 to 20 years after the original, untreated infection.

Multiple organ systems potentially affected by Tertiary syphilis, include the:

  • Brain & nerves (neurosyphilis)
  • Eyes (ocular syphilis)
  • Ears (otosyphilis)
  • Spinal cord
  • Heart
  • Blood vessels
  • Liver
  • Bones
  • Joints

To confirm this stage of the disease requires multiple tests. With consequences that can span decades and lead to irreversible harm, this stage serves as a stark reminder of syphilis’s formidable nature.

Can I catch syphilis from an item an infected individual has touched?

Even though you can catch syphilis from direct contact with the lesions on another person’s skin, you cannot get syphilis through casual contact with objects, such as:

  • toilet seats
  • doorknobs
  • swimming pools
  • hot tubs
  • bathtubs
  • shared clothing
  • eating utensils

While syphilis sores on the hands may not be as commonly associated with the infection as genital sores, they can still be contagious, especially in the primary stage of the infection. Syphilis is a treatable condition, especially when diagnosed early. Practicing safe sex, annual testing, and avoiding direct contact with open sores or lesions can help reduce the risk of transmitting syphilis or any other sexually transmitted infection (STI). Remember, contracting syphilis once does not confer any form of immunity. Each contact with an infected individual brings with it the possibility of re-infection. If you have had multiple sexual partners or suspect your partner may have other partners, you should be tested.

If you suspect you may have syphilis or have had sexual contact with someone who has the infection, it is crucial to seek medical advice promptly.

Our team at AFC Urgent Care Gastonia can perform tests to confirm the presence of the infection and recommend appropriate treatment, which usually involves antibiotics.

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