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Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a bacteria. It is less common than other STIs but is on the rise. It develops in three stages but can be cured if treated early.
The symptoms of syphilis are usually mild which may lead to some people ignoring them. The symptoms are similar for men and women and develop in three stages:
If left untreated the bacteria can spread to other parts of the body and the infection moves onto the second stage.
This stage will begin a few weeks after the chancre has disappeared. Even without the chancre, syphilis is still infectious in stage two and can be passed on.
Symptoms may include:
These symptoms may disappear after a few weeks or can come and go over a period of weeks or months. When the symptoms have disappeared you move into the latent (hidden) phase. This stage can last for years.
If syphilis is not treated it will then move onto its third and most dangerous stage.
It is rare to reach this stage in the UK and of those that do; only a third will experience serious symptoms.
This stage will begin years or even decades after the first infection and the symptoms will depend on where the infection has spread to.
Tertiary stage syphilis can cause:
By this point, syphilis can be dangerous enough to cause death.
Syphilis is caused by bacteria called treponema pallidum and is easily passed from one person to another through:
Unless someone with syphilis is treated, they can pass syphilis on for up to two years after the infection.
Syphilis can also be passed from a mother to her unborn baby but it can be treated during pregnancy. If left untreated it can cause miscarriage or stillbirth. All pregnant women are offered a blood test to check if they have syphilis as part of their antenatal screening during weeks 11-20.
Syphilis can also be passed on if you are an injecting drug user and you share a needle with someone who is infected.
You cannot get syphilis from kissing, hugging, sharing baths or towels, swimming pools, toilet seats or from sharing cups, plates or cutlery.
You will be advised to repeat the blood test after three months. This is because a positive result may detect antibodies from a previous episode that was successfully treated (and therefore you may actually be free from syphilis) and when you do in fact have syphilis, you can get a negative result at first because the antibodies may not be detectable for the first three months after infection.
Syphilis testing is free and you can get this at some Brook services, GUM or sexual health clinics or at some GP surgeries. Find your nearest using our find a service tool. It is possible to buy syphilis self-tests to do at home.
Cervical smear tests and routine blood tests will not detect syphilis.
If you’ve had unprotected sex, have a test as soon as you can. It’s the only way you can be sure that you have syphilis or not and left untreated, it can cause serious damage to your body.
Syphilis is usually treated with a single antibiotic injection or a course of injections. If you are allergic to penicillin (which is a type of antibiotic) you will be prescribed another type of antibiotic in tablet form.
This treatment is very effective for both first and second stage syphilis and should cure it. Syphilis can also be treated and cured in the latent and third stages but treatment cannot reverse any damage that has already been done to your body.
If you had symptoms, you should notice improvements quite quickly. You should go back to where you had your test if:
DON’T PASS IT ON
You should avoid having vaginal, anal or oral sex and any skin contact until you have been given the all-clear, to prevent you being re-infected or passing the infection on.
It is important that you tell any recent sexual partners (in the last six months) that you are being treated for syphilis, so that they go for treatment too.
Some clinics may also offer to contact your partner using what’s called a ‘contact slip’. This is to inform them they may have been exposed and to recommend they get tested but it doesn’t mention your name.
Not an STI but STIs can trigger it.
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