Government of New Brunswick

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a potentially life-threatening sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a bacterium (germ) called Treponema pallidum. This disease was rare in Canada but is now becoming more common. There has recently been an increase in the number of syphilis infections in New Brunswick.


You can have syphilis and not even know it - not everyone who is infected will have symptoms. Syphilis is also known as ‘the great imitator’ as symptoms can be similar to other illnesses. Symptoms can include swollen glands, fever, muscle aches and a rash on the palms of hands and the soles of feet. There are different symptoms for each of the four stages of the infection.

Please refer to our fact sheet for a complete list of symptoms for each stage of the infection.


  • Syphilis is spread:

mostly by having unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex with an infected person;

by direct (usually intimate) contact with lesions of primary and secondary syphilis such as a chancre;

by mother to child during pregnancy (the baby can suffer from birth defects or even die at birth); or

by sharing contaminated drug equipment or through broken skin on the body.

  • You cannot catch the infection by contact with: toilet seats, doorknobs, swimming pools, shared clothing, eating utensils, etc.
  • If left untreated, syphilis can spread and cause damage to your brain, heart, bones, and many other organs. It can cause paralysis, dementia, and even death.
  • The more sexual partners you have, the higher your risk of contracting syphilis.