header Image header Image

Syphilis

What is it?

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that can be treated with antibiotics.

However if syphilis is not treated it can affect our health over many years, causing damage to important organs such as the heart and brain.

How is it passed on?

Syphilis can be passed on by

  • Vaginal, anal or oral sex
  • Direct skin contact with someone who has a rash or sores caused by syphilis.
  • Pregnant women can pass the infection onto their unborn baby.

What are the symptoms?

Syphilis can develop in three stages:

  • Primary syphilis
  • Secondary syphilis
  • Tertiary syphilis

Many people do not have any symptoms in the early stages. If you do get symptoms, you might notice the following.

Primary syphilis

  • One or more (usually) painless sores on the genital area, in the mouth, around the anus or on other areas of the body, depending on the area of the body exposed to the infection.
  • The sores are very infectious and may take two to six weeks to heal.

Secondary syphilis

If syphilis remains untreated, the second stage usually occurs some weeks later. The symptoms you might notice are:

  • A painless rash that is not usually itchy. It can spread all over the body and is often seen on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet
  • Flat, warty looking growths on the vulva and around the anus. These are often mistaken for genital warts.
  • A flu-like illness, tiredness and loss of appetite, with swollen glands and a sore throat (this can last for weeks or months)
  • White patches on the tongue or roof of the mouth
  • Patchy hair loss

Tertiary syphilis

When syphilis is not treated for many years it can develop into tertiary syphilis.

This is when theinfection causes very serious damage to the heart, skin or bones, brain and nervous system. At this stage syphilis can be life-threatening.

How do you test for it?

A blood test is used to test for syphilis.

If you have sores or an ulcer a swab may also be tested.

What is the treatment?

Syphilis can be cured by a course of penicillin injections, or by taking antibiotics tablets.

Find out how to avoid STIs.