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What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that's usually caught by having sex with someone who's infected.

It's important to get tested and treated as soon as possible if you think you might have syphilis, as it can cause serious problems if it's left untreated.

It can usually be cured with a short course of antibiotics.

You can catch syphilis more than once, even if you've been treated for it before.

What happens if Syphilis is left undiagnosed?

Without treatment, a syphilis infection can last for years or decades without causing any symptoms.

Eventually, it can spread to parts of the body such as the brain or nerves and cause serious and potentially life-threatening problems. This is known as "tertiary syphilis".

People with tertiary syphilis may experience:

  • Meningitis
  • Strokes
  • Dementia symptoms
  • Loss of coordination
  • Numbness
  • Vision problems or blindness
  • Heart problems
  • Syphilis is still treatable at this stage, but it's sometimes not possible to reverse any damage that's already been done.

How is Syphilis spread?

Syphilis is mainly spread through close contact with an infected sore.

This usually happens during vaginal, anal or oral sex, or by sharing sex toys with someone who's infected. Anyone who's sexually active is potentially at risk.

Pregnant women with syphilis can pass the infection to their unborn baby. Read more about syphilis in pregnancy below.

It may be possible to catch syphilis if you inject yourself with drugs and you share needles with somebody who's infected, or through blood transfusions (this is very rare in the UK as all blood donations are tested for syphilis).

Syphilis can't be spread by using the same toilet, clothing, cutlery or bathroom as an infected person.

What are the symptoms of Syphilis?

The symptoms of syphilis aren't always obvious and may eventually disappear, but you'll usually remain infected unless you get treated.

Some people with syphilis have no symptoms.

Symptoms can include:

  • Small, painless sores or ulcers that typically appear on the penis, vagina, or around the anus, but can occur in other places such as the mouth
  • A blotchy red rash that often affects the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
  • Small skin growths (similar to genital warts) that may develop on the vulva in women or around the anus in both men and women
  • White patches in the mouth
  • Tiredness, headaches, joint pains, a high temperature (fever), and swollen glands in your neck, groin or armpits
  • If it's left untreated for years, syphilis can spread to the brain or other parts of the body and cause serious, long-term problems.

How is Syphilis tested?

Most often, a blood sample is drawn from a vein in your arm; sometimes, a scraping from a chancre in the affected area; less commonly, cerebrospinal fluid is taken via a spinal tap, depending on your clinical presentation.

How is Syphilis treated?

Syphilis is usually treated with either:

An injection of antibiotics into your buttocks – most people will only need one dose, although 3 injections given at weekly intervals may be recommended if you've had syphilis for a long time

A course of antibiotics tablets if you can't have the injection – this will usually last 2 or 4 weeks, depending on how long you've had syphilis

You should avoid any kind of sexual activity or close sexual contact with another person until at least 2 weeks after your treatment finishes.

What about a Syphilis reinfection?

Syphilis can't always be prevented, but if you're sexually active you can reduce your risk by practising safer sex:

  • Use a male condom or female condom during vaginal, oral and anal sex
  • Use a dental dam (a square of plastic) during oral sex
  • Avoid sharing sex toys – if you do share them, wash them and cover them with a condom before each use
  • These measures can also reduce your risk of catching other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

If you inject yourself with drugs, don't use other people's needles or share your needles with others.

Is there a Statutory Notification for Syphilis?

Syphilis is a notifiable disease which means that doctors and laboratories are legally required to notify state and federal health departments about new cases. This information is treated confidentially and the statistics used for public health planning.

Source: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/syphilis/