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Syphilis tests tell if a person has this disease. They look for antibodies to the bacterium, or germ, that causes syphilis. Some tests look for the syphilis germ itself.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection. That means it is spread through sexual contact: vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
Testing is done on blood, body fluid, or tissue samples.
If a first screening test shows signs of syphilis, another test is done to confirm a syphilis infection.
Tests used to screen for syphilis include:
Tests used to confirm a syphilis infection include:
A syphilis infection can spread through the bloodstream to all parts of the body. If not treated, syphilis can cause severe heart disease, brain damage, spinal cord damage, blindness, and death.
A test for syphilis is done to:
Screening for syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections is often done for people who engage in sexual behaviors that put them at risk. If you have syphilis, your sex partner or partners should be told, tested, and treated to prevent serious problems and to stop the spread of the disease.
Tell your doctor if you:
If you have syphilis, do not have sex until the test results show that you are no longer infected or until you and your sex partner or partners have completed treatment and the infection has been cured. Your sex partners should be tested as well.
If you think you might have syphilis, do not have sex until testing shows that you are not infected.
Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have regarding the need for the test, its risks, how it will be done, or what the results may mean. To help you understand the importance of this test, fill out the medical test information form(What is a PDF document?).
A syphilis test may be done on a sample of blood, sore, skin, or spinal fluid, depending on which type of test is done.
Blood test from a finger stick
For a fingertip sample, the health professional taking the sample will:
Blood test from a vein
The health professional taking a sample of your blood will:
A sample of fluid or tissue may be taken from an open sore or from a rash that might be caused by syphilis.
A spinal tap (lumbar puncture) is done to collect a spinal fluid sample for syphilis testing.
For a lumbar puncture, a thin needle is inserted into the spinal canal in the lower back. After the needle is in place, a small amount of fluid is removed from the spinal canal. To learn more, see the topic Lumbar Puncture.
The blood sample is taken from a vein in your arm or from your fingertip. You may feel nothing at all from the needle or lancet, or you may feel a quick sting or pinch. When blood is taken from a vein, an elastic band is wrapped around your upper arm and may feel tight.
You may feel some discomfort when fluid is collected from an open sore. But syphilis sores usually are not very tender or painful.
You may feel some discomfort during a lumbar puncture to collect spinal fluid. To learn more, see the topic Lumbar Puncture.
There is very little chance of a problem from having a blood sample taken from your fingertip or a vein.
There is very little risk of problems from having a sample taken from an open sore, skin rash, or mucous membrane.
There is little risk linked with having a lumbar puncture to obtain a spinal fluid sample. To learn more, see the topic Lumbar Puncture.
Syphilis tests tell if a person has the disease. They look for antibodies to the bacterium, or germ, that causes syphilis. Some tests look for the syphilis germ itself.
Results are usually available in 7 to 10 days.
No syphilis germs are seen.
Syphilis germs are seen.
No syphilis antibodies are found. This is called a nonreactive or negative result.
Antibodies are found. This is called a reactive or positive test.
A result that is not clearly normal or abnormal is called inconclusive or equivocal.
Syphilis antibodies are not found. This is called a nonreactive or negative result.
A reactive or positive test result does not always mean that you have syphilis. Other conditions can cause positive test results. These include injecting illegal drugs, recent vaccinations, endocarditis, and autoimmune diseases.
The accuracy of testing often depends on the stage of syphilis. Testing may need to be repeated if:
You may not be able to have the test, or the results may not be helpful, if:
To learn more about testing for sexually transmitted infections, see:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015). Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines, 2015. MMWR, 64(RR-03): 1-137. http://www.cdc.gov/std/tg2015. Accessed July 2, 2015. [Erratum in MMWR, 64(33): 924. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6433a9.htm?s_cid=mm6433a9_w. Accessed January 25, 2016.]
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2009). Screening for syphilis infection in pregnancy: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force reaffirmation recommendation statement. Annals of Internal Medicine, 150(10): 705-709.
Other Works Consulted
Chernecky CC, Berger BJ (2013). Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures, 6th ed. St. Louis: Saunders.
Pagana KD, Pagana TJ (2014). Mosby's Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests, 5th ed. St. Louis: Mosby.
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineMartin J. Gabica, MD - Family MedicineAdam Husney, MD - Family MedicineKevin C. Kiley, MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology
Current as ofNovember 27, 2017
Current as of:
November 27, 2017
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
& E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine & Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Kevin C. Kiley, MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology
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