What is syphilis?

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?

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

The symptoms of syphilis are very similar for men and women. A lot of 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.

The first noticeable symptoms of syphilis usually appear two or three weeks after infection and 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.
  • You may also experience pain in your neck, groin or armpits from swollen glands.

If syphilis is left untreated, it will progress to second stage syphilis and new symptoms will appear. Symptoms of secondary syphilis may include;

  • a blotchy red rash on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet, this isn’t always itchy
  • small skin growths that look like genital warts, these 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 and high temperature

These symptoms usually disappear after a few weeks. You will still be infected even if you don’t have symptoms and you can still pass the infection on.

An untreated syphilis infection can last for years or decades without showing any symptoms. Eventually this can spread to the brain or other parts of the body and cause serious, long-term health problems. This is known as third stage (tertiary) or advanced syphilis.

People with tertiary syphilis may experience:

  • meningitis
  • strokes
  • dementia symptoms
  • loss of co-ordination
  • numbness
  • vision problems or blindness
  • heart problems

Even at this stage syphilis can be treated, but some of the damage can’t be fixed.

Treatment for syphilis

Treatment for syphilis

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?

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.

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?

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?

How can we help you?

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Accessing our service during the COVID pandemic

How to access our service:

We have now implemented a telephone triage system for all of our clinics. This system will be in place for the duration of the pandemic. Please contact our services to access this triage system. Our central telephone number is 0300 303 3989.

If you are experiencing symptoms of Coronavirus please do not attend the clinic. Clear advice for people with symptoms of coronavirus is available at nhs.uk/coronavirus .

Advice from our service:

We have updated information on the provision of routine contraception during this pandemic here.

More details on the fitting of LARCs (coils and implants) at our service can be found here

If you need the combined contraceptive pill please try (if you can) to get updated measurements of your height, weight and blood pressure before calling us.

There is also specific advice on coronavirus available for People Living with HIV here, and for pregnant women here

Self-requested Sexual Health screening by post is available for for under 25s only - more info here

For others with testing requirements please contact the service on 0300 303 3989.

Alternative provision:

Please be aware that we may have to cancel, rearrange or shut clinical services in response to changing clinical and staffing pressures created by the Coronavirus pandemic. 

If you are struggling to access sexual health services, alternatives may be available:

  • Emergency Contraception - at your local pharmacy - more info
  • Contraceptive pills and LARC procedures - obtained from your GP
  • HIV postal testing - available to at-risk groups for a small fee -  more info
  • HIV PEPSE - available via A+E departments - more info
  • Condoms by post (for gay and bisexual men only) - more info