Syphilis is a bacterial infection, the symptoms of which are not always obvious though the infection remains until treatment is completed.
Whilst some people display no symptoms of a syphilis infection, others report:
- Small, painless sores or ulcers that appear on the penis, vagina, or around the anus. They may also be found in other places including the mouth
- A blotchy red rash that affects the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
- Small skin growths (similar to genital warts) that may develop on the vulva in women or around the anus in both men and women
- White patches in the mouth
- Feeling more tired than usual, with flu-type symptoms such as headaches, joint pain and swollen gland in the neck, armpits or groin
- If left untreated syphilis can spread to the brain or other parts of the body causing serious, long-term problems. There are also serious health implications for babies born to mothers that carry syphilis; syphilis in pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage, still birth, and passing congenital syphilis to the baby.
How is it spread?
Syphilis is usually spread through close contact with an infected sore, which may happen during vaginal, anal or oral sex, or by sharing sex toys with someone who’s infected.
Anyone who is sexually active is potentially at risk; particularly considering many of the sores are not obvious to see.
Syphilis may also be passed through blood; pregnant women with syphilis will pass the infection to their unborn baby, and an injecting drug user may catch it if they share needles with someone who is infected.
Syphilis is usually treated with either:
- An injection of antibiotics into the buttocks; this will be either a single dose injection or three injections given at weekly intervals
- A course of antibiotic tablets, lasting two to four weeks.
All sexual activity and close sexual contact with another person should be avoided until at least two weeks after the treatment ends.
Syphilis may be difficult to prevent and in some cases impossible, however if you are sexually active you can reduce your risk by:
Using male or female condoms during vaginal, oral and anal sex
Using a dental dam (a square of plastic) during oral sex
Avoiding shared sex toys, but if you do share them make sure they are washed and covered with a condom before use
These measures will also reduce your risk of catching other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
If you are an injecting drug user, make sure to never use other people’s needles or share your own needles with others.