What is it?
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that can be passed on by
- Unprotected sexual intercourse
- Genital contact
- From mother to baby during pregnancy
Syphilis can cause serious problems if untreated so it is really important to get tested and treated as soon as possible if you think you may have been at risk of transmission
It can usually be cured with a short course of antibiotics however you can catch syphilis more than once, even if you’ve been treated for it before.
How will I know I have got it?
The symptoms of syphilis are similar for men and women. They’re often mild and difficult to recognise, so it can be passed on without knowing. Some people with syphilis have no symptoms. Some symptoms last for a short time and then disappear however this does not mean that the infection has gone away. The symptoms tend to change over time and may come and go; there’s still a risk you could pass the infection on or develop serious problems if not treated.
- small, painless or ulcers or sores on the penis, vagina, or around the anus; they can also occur in other places like the mouth
- a red, blotchy rash typically on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
- small skin growths (similar to genital warts) on the vulva or anus
- 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.
Serious problems if left untreated
Syphilis infection can last for years or decades without causing any symptoms.
Eventually, if left untreated, it can spread to other 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 at this stage can experience:
Syphilis is still treatable at this stage however damage that has been done cannot be reversed.
The only way to find out if you have syphilis is to get tested.
Testing for Syphilis
To diagnose syphilis, you’ll usually have a:
- physical examination of your genitals (and inside the vagina for women) or other parts of your body to look for symptoms of syphilis
- blood test – this can detect infection or previous infection; a repeat test may be recommended to ensure an accurate
- swab test – a swab (like to a cotton bud) is used to take a small sample of fluid from any sores, to test for syphilis
It is recommended that you also test for other STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea; you can have more than one STI at a time. Some NUPAS services offer this test.
Results may be available the same day, while others may take a week or two to come back. It is advisable to avoid having sex or close sexual contact with anyone else until test results are confirmed.
Screening for syphilis in pregnancy
As part of their antenatal care ALL pregnant women are offered a blood test to check for syphilis; normally at 8-12 weeks. Syphilis infection during pregnancy can be very dangerous for the baby; the screening test ensures detection and treatment as soon as possible. if there’s a risk to exposure to syphilis later in pregnancy, the test can be repeated.