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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)
  • Headaches, neck stiffness and changes in hearing or vision. If these occur you should contact a doctor immediately for assessment
  • 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 the infection 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. The blood test is not a fasting blood test, so please eat and drink as normal prior to your appointment.

If you have sores or an ulcer a swab may also be tested if you attend our clinic.

It can take 3 months for Syphilis to show up on a blood test. If you test whilst you are still within this “window period” you may need to repeat your tests once you are outside the window period. If you experience any concerning symptoms, please contact LSH so we can offer an assessment as soon as possible.

What is the treatment?

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

Once treated, Syphilis antibodies will remain in your blood. This means if you have ever been diagnosed with Syphilis, you will need to test in clinic in future rather than through a home testing kit, so we can determine if it is a new infection or just evidence of the past treated infection.

Find out how to avoid STIs.