Syphilis in Devon

posted by: Don Leslie

I was enjoying a cup of tea and a chat with one of our lovely Sexual Health nurses, when she calmly mentioned that syphilis was on the rise in Devon.

I was surprised!

This is a disease that I associated more strongly with Queen Victoria’s navy rather than the sunny streets of Exeter, Torquay or Barnstaple, but it transpires that there has been something in the region of a 400% increase in syphilis diagnosis in Exeter alone over the past 12 months.

Not just a Victorian disease then.

A bit of googling revealed that syphilis had been virtually eradicated in Britain but was now back up to levels not seen since the Second World War. So what’s causing the rise of syphilis in Devon? And, more importantly, what should people do about it? As always, whenever I have questions about sexual health, I turned to our clinicians to find out more…

What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a bacterial infection which can be transmitted by all types of sexual contact, vaginal, anal, oral sex or sharing sex toys. It’s very infectious and is easily passed on, usually by close contact with an infected sore which your partner may not know they have.

What are the symptoms of Syphilis?

Some people get no symptoms at all. Others have very mild symptoms which will seem to clear up on their own – they will remain infected though unless it is treated. Noticeable symptoms of syphilis can include:

  • small, painless sores or ulcers that appear on the penis, vagina, or around the anus, but can occur in other places such as the mouth. These can also occur inside the anus, and because they aren’t sore, you may not realise you have them. These can take 2 – 6 weeks to disappear and are highly infectious!
  • a blotchy red rash that often affects the palms of the hands or soles of the feet, this isn’t always itchy
  • small skin growths that look like genital warts, that may develop on the vulva in women or around the anus in both men and women
  • white patches in the mouth
  • flu-like symptoms including tiredness, headaches, joint pain, high temperature, and swollen glands in your neck, groin or armpits.

If syphilis is left untreated it can spread to the brain or other parts of the body and cause serious, long-term health problems. Early diagnosis is key here.

How is Syphilis treated?

Syphilis is usually treated with an antibiotic injection or a course of antibiotic tablets. You should avoid any kind of sexual activity or close sexual contact with another person until at least two weeks after your treatment finishes. Unfortunately, you can catch syphilis more than once, even if you have been treated.

What should I do if I think I have Syphilis?

You may have syphilis if you have had unprotected sex with someone who has the infection. The only way to find out is to book an appointment at one of our clinics and get tested. Syphilis is tested for by taking a swab from an ulcer (if you have one) and a blood test. The results will usually be available in one to two weeks. The staff at our clinics are incredibly friendly and kind so there is no need to worry about visiting. They won’t judge you, but they will make you better. Waiting times can vary, so it is usually best to book an appointment in advance.

Syphilis can have no symptoms so it’s really important that anyone you have had sexual contact with is aware that they need to get tested. We can help you with this by contacting them but keeping your name anonymous or you can do this yourself.

Finally, you need to avoid any type of sexual contact until at least two weeks after your treatment has finished. Even if you use a condom, there is still a risk of infecting someone.

How can I avoid getting Syphilis?

Wear a condom during any sexual activity including vaginal, anal or oral sex. This isn’t 100% effective, but it’s the best way of avoiding an infection. Use a dental dam or a condom during oral sex. Wash sex toys or cover them with a condom and replace it between partners. Also, talk to your partner about their sexual history. When did they last have unprotected sex? When did they last have a test for STIs?

So there you have it, syphilis is on the rise in Devon but you can help prevent this by wearing a condom, getting yourself tested if you have had unprotected sex or by knowing your partner’s sexual history and encouraging them to get tested as well. Hopefully then it will just be the temperature rising throughout the summer…


Blogged by:

Don. Don is a writer and father based in Devon.

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