What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that's usually passed on through having sex with someone who's infected.
The bacteria that cause syphilis are called Treponema pallidum. They can enter your body if you have close contact with an infected sore, normally during vaginal, anal or oral sex or by sharing sex toys with someone who's infected.
Pregnant women can pass the condition on to their unborn baby, which can causeor death of the baby shortly after labour. It may also be possible to catch syphilis if you inject drugs and you share a needle with somebody who's infected.
It's extremely rare for syphilis to be spread through, as all blood transfusions in the UK are tested for syphilis.
It's not possible for syphilis to be spread by using the same toilet, clothing, cutlery or bathroom as an infected person, as the bacteria can't survive for long outside the human body.
3 stages of disease
The symptoms of syphilis develop in 3 stages, described below.
- stage 1 (primary syphilis) – symptoms of syphilis begin with a painless but highly infectious sore on the genitals or sometimes around the mouth. If somebody else comes into close contact with the sore, typically during sexual contact, they can also become infected. The sore lasts 2 to 6 weeks before disappearing
- stage 2 (secondary syphilis) – secondary symptoms, such as a skin rash and sore throat, then develop. These symptoms may disappear within a few weeks, after which you experience a latent (hidden) phase with no symptoms, which can last for years. After this, syphilis can progress to its third, most dangerous stage
- stage 3 (tertiary syphilis) – around a third of people who aren't treated for syphilis will develop tertiary syphilis. At this stage, it can cause serious damage to the body
The primary and secondary stages are when you're most infectious to other people. In the latent phase (and usually around 2 years after becoming infected), syphilis can't be passed on to others but can still cause symptoms.
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What to do
If you suspect you have syphilis, visit a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic, sexual health clinic or your doctor as soon as possible. The earlier syphilis is treated, the less chance there is of serious complications. Find your nearest sexual health clinic.
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How common is it?
Rates are highest among men who have sex with men.
If diagnosed early, syphilis can be easily treated with antibiotics, usually penicillin injections.
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However, if it's not treated, syphilis can progress to a more dangerous form of the disease and cause serious conditions such as, , or even death.
It's estimated that people with syphilis are 3 to 5 times more likely to catch. This is because the genital sores caused by syphilis can bleed easily, making it easier for the HIV virus to enter the blood during sexual activity.
Infection with both HIV and syphilis can be serious because syphilis can progress much more rapidly than normal.
The only guaranteed way to prevent a syphilis infection is to avoid sexual contact or to have sexual contact only with a faithful partner who's been tested and doesn't have the infection.
You can reduce your risk of catching syphilis and other(STIs) by:
- using a during vaginal, oral and anal sex
- using a dental dam (square of plastic) during oral sex
- avoiding sharing sex toys
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Symptoms of syphilis
The symptoms of syphilis are the same for men and women and can be difficult to recognise. They are often mild, which means you can pass on the infection without knowing you've got it.
The symptoms develop in 3 stages:
- primary syphilis
- secondary syphilis
- tertiary syphilis
The initial symptoms of syphilis can appear any time from 10 days to 3 months after you've been exposed to the infection.
The most common symptom is the appearance of a small, painless sore or ulcer (called a chancre). The sore will appear on the part of your body where the infection was transmitted, typically the penis, vagina, anus, rectum, tongue or lips. Most people only have 1 sore, but some people have more.
You may also experience swelling in your lymph glands (small organs found throughout the body, such as in the neck, groin or armpit).
The sore is painless and may be overlooked, so the condition can be spread without you realising you have an infection.
The sore will then disappear within 2 to 6 weeks and, if the condition isn't treated, syphilis will move into its second stage.
The symptoms of secondary syphilis will begin a few weeks after the disappearance of the sore.
Common symptoms include:
- a non-itchy skin rash appearing anywhere on the body, but commonly on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
- swollen lymph glands
Less common symptoms include:
- weight loss
- patchy hair loss
- joint pains
These symptoms may disappear within a few weeks, or come and go over a period of months.
Syphilis will then move into its latent (hidden) phase, where you'll experience no symptoms, even though you remain infected. Latent syphilis can still be passed on during the first year of this stage of the condition, usually through sexual or close physical contact. However, after a couple of years, you can't pass the infection to others, even though you remain infected.
The latent stage can continue for many years (even decades) after you first become infected.
Without treatment, there's a risk that latent syphilis will move on to the most dangerous stage – tertiary syphilis.
The symptoms of tertiary syphilis can begin years or even decades after initial infection. Around a third of people who are not treated for syphilis develop serious symptoms at this stage.
The symptoms of tertiary syphilis will depend on what part of the body the infection spreads to. For example, it may affect the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, bones, skin or blood vessels, potentially causing any of the following symptoms:
- loss of co-ordination
- skin rashes
At this stage, syphilis can be dangerous enough to cause death.
Causes of syphilis
Syphilis is caused by bacteria called Treponema pallidum. The bacteria can enter your body if you have close contact with an infected sore, normally during vaginal, anal or oral sex or by sharing sex toys.
It may also be possible to catch syphilis if you're injecting drugs and you share a needle with somebody who's infected.
Pregnant women can pass the condition on to their unborn babies, which can cause stillbirth or death of the baby shortly after labour.
If you suspect you have syphilis, visit a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic, sexual health clinic or your doctor as soon as possible. The earlier syphilis is treated, the less chance there is of serious complications.
You don't have to pay if you go to a GUM clinic. If you go to your doctor surgery, you may have to pay a prescription charge for the treatment.
The doctor or nurse will examine your genitals. For men, this involves looking at the penis, foreskin and urethra (the hole at the end of the penis where urine comes out). For women, it involves an internal examination of the vagina. Both men and women may also have their anus examined.
After the examination, you will have afor syphilis (see below). You should also have tests for other (STIs), including . The results should be available in 7 to 10 days.
If you're infected with syphilis, your body produces antibodies (proteins released as part of your immune response) against the syphilis bacteria.
So 1 way to determine whether you have syphilis is to have a sample of your blood tested for the presence of these antibodies.
This is what each test result means:
- a positive result (antibodies present) indicates that you either have the infection or you used to have it (because the antibodies can remain in your body for years, even after a previous infection was successfully treated).
- a negative result does not necessarily mean that you don't have syphilis as the antibodies may not be detectable for up to 3 months after infection. You may be advised to repeat the test in 3 months' time.
Every pregnant woman should have a blood test for syphilis as the infection can kill unborn or newborn babies. The blood test is usually done during an antenatal appointment at weeks 11–20 of pregnancy. If the test is positive, treatment for both the mother and baby can begin.
If sores are present, a swab (like a cotton bud) will be used to take a small sample of fluid from the sore. This is then either looked at under a microscope in the clinic or sent to a laboratory for examination.
You should also be routinely tested for the presence of other STIs, such as HIV,and , as it's possible to have more than one STI at a time.
The only guaranteed way to prevent a syphilis infection is to avoid sexual contact or only to have sexual contact with a faithful partner who has been tested and is not infected.can reduce your risk of catching syphilis, but cannot prevent it altogether. You can still catch syphilis if your mouth makes contact with a sore on an infected person's anus or vagina, for example.
It's important not only to use a condom during vaginal, oral and anal sex, but also consider using a dental dam (square of plastic) when your mouth makes contact with your partner's vagina or anus. This will reduce your risk of any STI, not just syphilis.
Avoid sharing sex toys. If you do share them, wash them or cover them with a condom before each use.
Sexual penetration or ejaculation does not need to take place for syphilis to spread.
If you inject drugs, don't use other people's needles. Many pharmacies and local authorities offer needle-exchange programmes, where used needles can be exchanged for clean ones. Your doctor or drug counsellor should be able to provide more information.
Primary and secondary syphilis can be successfully treated with a single dose of penicillin (which is given as an injection into your buttock). You'll be prescribed another antibiotic (in tablet form) if you're allergic to penicillin.
Later stages of the disease need to be treated with 3injections, which are given at weekly intervals.
Side effects of antibiotics
Some of the antibiotics used to treat syphilis can adversely affect methods of contraception that contain the hormones oestrogen and progestogen, such as theor contraceptive patch. Tell your doctor or nurse if you're using these methods of contraception so they can advise you on additional contraceptive methods to protect you from pregnancy.
Refrain from any kind of sexual activity or close physical contact with another person until your treatment is complete and your sexual partner has been tested and treated.
A small number of people experience a reaction to the antibiotics known as the Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction. It's thought that the reaction is triggered by the toxins released when a large number of bacteria are killed after antibiotic treatment.
The Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction causes flu-like symptoms such as fever, headaches and muscle and joint pain. These normally only last 24 hours, are nothing to worry about and cause no serious problems. The symptoms can be treated with, but contact your doctor or the GUM clinic if the symptoms are severe or do not settle down.
Once the course of antibiotics has finished, you'll be asked to return to the GUM clinic so a follow-upcan be carried out to check that the infection has gone.
You can still catch syphilis again, even after you've been successfully treated for it.
Treatment of tertiary syphilis requires longer courses of antibiotics and may need intravenous treatment (administered directly into the vein). While treatment can stop the infection, it can't repair any damage that has already been caused by the tertiary syphilis.
Telling your partner
If you have syphilis, it's important that your current sexual partner, or any sexual partner you have had since being exposed to infection, is tested and treated.
Some people can feel angry, upset or embarrassed about discussing syphilis with their current partner or former partner. Don't be afraid to discuss your concerns with the clinic staff or your doctor. They can advise you about who should be contacted and the best way to contact them.
The clinic can give you a 'contact slip' to give to your partner or partners. This slip explains to that person that they may have been exposed to syphilis and that they should go for a check-up. The slip does not have your name on it and your details will remain totally confidential.
If you'd prefer, the clinic can contact your recent partner for you. This is usually done by phone or letter. Again, your details will remain totally confidential and your partners will be given no information about you without your consent.
Nobody can force you to tell any of your partners about your syphilis, but it's strongly recommended. If it's left untested and untreated, syphilis can lead to death.
Complications of syphilis
It's estimated that people with syphilis are 3 to 5 times more likely to catch HIV. This is because the genital sores caused by syphilis can bleed easily, making it easier for the HIV virus to enter the blood during sexual activity.
Being infected with both HIV and syphilis can be serious because syphilis can progress much more rapidly than normal.