What is it?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that affects both men and women, and it is caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum.
Primary stage (10 days – 6 weeks) is usually a small, red ulcer/sore which heals itself after 3-6 weeks This is called a chancre (pronounced ‘shanker’). There may be one or multiple and they may be painful or painless. You might also notice swollen glands in the area near the sores. If syphilis is not treated it will progress to the second stage.
Secondary stage (1 week – 6 months after the first stage) may show a rash on the skin, particularly on the palms of the hands, and soles of the feet, and often on the trunk (chest, stomach and back). There may also be swollen glands, headaches, aches and pains, hair loss, deafness or eye problems.
Often has no signs or symptoms, but the syphilis is still in the body and will show up only in a blood test for syphilis. If left untreated, damage can be done to the brain, nervous system, bones, eyes and other organs, and this may not be apparent for years.
How is Syphilis passed on?
Syphilis can be easily spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex. Even if you have had the infection before you can catch it again. Syphilis may also be passed on through deep kissing if the infected partner has an ulcer (chancre) in their mouth.
Syphilis can be passed on from a pregnant mother to her baby at any stage of the pregnancy. If syphilis is found during pregnancy it can be treated to prevent the infection being transmitted to the baby. Pregnant women are routinely offered syphilis testing along with tests for HIV, Hepatitis B and Rubella.
If I test positive for syphilis, does my partner need to be tested?
Yes, if you test positive, it is important that your partner(s) is/are tested too so that they can also be treated, if required.
How can I best prevent infection?
The best way to stay free from sexually transmitted infections is to practice safer sex. HIV is a sexually transmitted infection and having syphilis makes it easier for HIV to be transmitted. Syphilis can be passed on through oral, vaginal and anal sex. Using a condom or dental dam will reduce the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. Syphilis sores are very infectious and can sometimes be on areas not covered by the condoms, or be hidden in the vagina, rectum or mouth, so take care. It is important to attend for regular sexual health checks so that infections can be picked up and treated early.
How common is Syphilis?
Until recently, syphilis was not very common. A large rise in the number of syphilis infections was observed in the last decade, particularly among men who have sex with other men and locally we have recently seen an increase in infections among young straight/heterosexual people in Lanarkshire.
Can it be treated?
Yes, syphilis can be treated with antibiotics. It is important if you are treated for syphilis that you go back to the clinic to check the infection is completely gone, and to ensure your partner is also tested/checked and, if necessary, treated so you do not re-infect each other. Also, avoid sexual contact until you and your partner have got the all clear. Follow up appointments to ensure the treatment has worked are carried out by the team at the sexual health clinic. These appointments are usually over a 12 month period.
What if Syphilis is left untreated?
The symptoms may go away by themselves, but syphilis will not go away without treatment. If left untreated, you may develop serious complications in the future and you could pass it onto partners.
Where can I get tested?
It is important if you are sexually active to have regular sexual health checks for chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV and syphilis especially if you have a new partner or have had multiple partners.
You can get a full sexual health check up in a welcoming, confidential setting at a Sexual Health Clinic (formerly Genito-urinary GUM clinic). The staff are specially trained and very experienced in helping people who are concerned they may have an infection. The test normally involves a blood test and if an ulcer/sore is present a swab will also be taken. For some people syphilis may not show up in the blood test straight away and so it may need to be repeated. This is why it is important to have regular sexual health checks.
If you have any concerns about syphilis and think you may have symptoms please attend your local sexual health clinic. You can make an appointment by calling 0300 303 0251 from 9.00am–4.45pm Monday to Friday.
Testing can also be performed by your GP.