Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection. It’s a progressive illness, meaning it will not get better without treatment.
It’s important to be diagnosed and treated as early as possible to avoid severe damage to the body.
Find out more about syphilis, if you are at risk and how it can be treated.
Syphilis can easily be cured in the early stages of infection. A single penicillin injection will often get rid of the infection and its symptoms. If you are allergic to penicillin, your doctor will be able to prescribe another antibiotic. For later stage treatment, an antibiotic regimen will be recommended by your doctor. If left untreated for an extended period of time, syphilis can cause permanent damage to organs in the body. At the latent stage of syphilis, your doctor may prescribe doxycycline or tetracycline to help you get rid of the syphilis infection.
Syphilis is not as common as other STIs like chlamydia. However, new statistics show that reported cases of syphilis have increased significantly from 2009 (2,847) to 2018 (7,541). It is a serious infection and should be treated as soon as possible. If left untreated, it can result in severe damage to the brain, heart and nervous system. The increase in the reported cases of syphilis could be due to different factors, one being the improper and inconsistent use of condoms. According to Public Health England, syphilis is most common in young people between the ages of 15 and 24, as well as gay and bisexual men. Black and minority ethnic populations also seem to be affected disproportionately by STIs.
Syphilis is a progressive sexually transmitted infection. This means in most cases the illness worsens over time if left untreated.
In some cases, syphilis symptoms (like sores) are easy to identify. However, some symptoms are hard to spot and may be mistaken for something else. We can help with:
What are the first symptoms of syphilis? And what are the stages of syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (commonly referred to as an STI). It is caused by the bacteria called Treponema Pallidum. The infection is spread from person to person through vaginal, anal or oral sexual contact. Syphilis is transmitted through direct contact with a syphilitic sore, also known as a chancre sore, that develops around the genitals, rectum or mouth. It can also be contracted by injecting using infected needles. If syphilis is left untreated, it can lead to very serious health problems.
The stages of syphilis are split up based on the symptoms shown and how long it has been since contracting the infection. At the last stage of syphilis, serious damage can be caused to the body so it is important to spot symptoms as early as possible and diagnose the infection with a blood test.
The signs and symptoms of syphilis may be difficult to notice as you may not initially have any symptoms that you can see or feel. You may be unaware that you are infected with an STI or you may confuse some syphilis symptoms for other conditions. This is one of the reasons it is important to get tested for sexually transmitted infections if you are sexually active.
Syphilis is a progressive infection and the symptoms can show in stages. You are most infectious in the first two stages of the infection. One of the first and most prominent symptoms of syphilis are chancre sores. These are usually painless sores and can often be found around the genitals but they can also be found on the anus, mouth, lips, tongue, tonsils, fingers, breasts and nipples.
The first stage of syphilis is the primary stage and symptoms may start to appear 10 days to 3 months after coming into contact with the syphilis bacteria. In this stage, ulcers and sores called chancres can appear. They are typically painless and can appear on the body at the point where the bacteria entered. Chancre sores are small, round and firm, and are very infectious - they can spread to other areas of the body or to other people if left untreated. When treated, chancres usually heal and disappear within 2 to 8 weeks.
Chancre sores can appear anywhere on the body, particularly:
If syphilis is left untreated after the first stage, you will progress into the second stage of the infection. Symptoms in this stage can appear around 4-10 weeks after the chancres disappear. Symptoms in this stage include:
The third stage of syphilis is known as tertiary syphilis and is the most serious stage of the illness. It can cause severe damage to the heart, brain, bones and nervous system. This occurs when syphilis has been left untreated through the first and second stage of the illness. Possible damage to the body includes:
Syphilis can also be classified into another category called latent syphilis. This commonly occurs after the second stage and can go on for years. Syphilis appears to be latent or hidden, however, the bacteria still remains in the body. With latent syphilis, you may still be infectious. Latent syphilis can progress to tertiary syphilis. A blood test can give a diagnosis.
Latent syphilis can be divided into an early latent stage (one year or less from contracting the infection) and a late latent stage (more than a year after contracting the syphilis bacteria).
Although neurosyphilis can occur at any stage of the infection, it is more likely to appear when left untreated for many years. It can develop after 10 to 20 years of contracting Treponema Pallidum (the syphilis bacteria), without receiving treatment in that time. It can be a life-threatening or life disabling infection of the nervous system that targets the brain and spinal cord. Neurosyphilis can be broken down into 5 subtypes:
Ocular syphilis can also occur at any stage of syphilis infection. It can affect any eye structure but the most common parts of the eye it affects are the choroid, retina and iris. Ocular syphilis can affect vision. Symptoms may include:
In order to protect yourself from contracting syphilis, you should understand how the virus is spread and passed on from person to person.
Certain factors can cause people to be at a higher risk of getting the infection than others. We can help with:
How is syphilis transmitted? How do I get syphilis?
Syphilis is usually caused by coming into contact with the spiral-shaped bacteria called Treponema pallidum. The bacterium can enter your body when it comes into contact with mucous membranes or minor cuts or abrasions on the skin. Syphilis is most commonly caused by contact with chancre sores during sexual activity but can also be caused by direct physical contact with a sore such as through kissing.
Syphilis can be spread from person to person when they come into contact with the syphilis bacteria, Treponema pallidum. This usually happens when individuals come into contact with the chancre sores that appear during the first stage of syphilis or a rash that can appear in the second stage. Syphilis is spread through sexual activity, however, syphilis can also be spread through:
The bacteria that causes syphilis is Treponema pallidum and these are small, fragile bacteria. The bacteria have only been found on humans and are not able to live outside the body. It can only be passed on through physical contact with a syphilis lesion. These lesions can be visible sores or rashes on the body, depending on what stage you are in the illness.
Anyone can come in contact with the syphilis bacteria and become infected. However, certain people may be more at risk of contracting syphilis, such as:
Syphilis may be easier to catch than other STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea because it can be spread not only through sexual intercourse but through skin-to-skin contact. When you come into contact with a chancre sore, you can catch syphilis. Cases of syphilis have risen significantly between 2009 (2,847) and 2018 (7,541) according to Public Health England.
Getting tested for syphilis is the only way you will know for sure if you have syphilis or not. Syphilis symptoms are not always obvious so it is important to get tested.
The best way to know for sure if you have syphilis is through a blood test. We can help with:
How soon can you test for syphilis? And what do I do if I think I have syphilis?
Your doctor will be able to give you a physical exam to check your body for sores or rashes that may give a clue that you have syphilis. However, a medical diagnosis of syphilis cannot be made without a blood test.
You should get tested for syphilis as soon as possible if:
Blood testing can be carried out to find out if you are infected with syphilis. If you are informed that your blood test is positive for syphilis, this indicates that you have syphilis. These blood tests work by:
You can get tested for syphilis with the Medicspot Complete STI Test. When you order your test, our private nurse will contact you to arrange a convenient time to take your samples.
Syphilis can also be identified through other screening tests such as:
If you feel you have been exposed to syphilis through unprotected sex or direct contact with a chancre sore and no symptoms have appeared, you should still get tested. It is important not to delay testing and a test can be done right away. You can get a reliable test result 1 week to 3 months after exposure to syphilis.
If your test results come back negative or normal and you feel you are at a high risk contracting syphilis, you should get tested again in a few weeks. This is because it may take time for your body to develop the antibody response to the infection which can then be picked up by a blood test. You should seek advice from your GP if you need to come back for another test.
Tests are never 100% accurate. However, syphilis blood tests almost always identify if you have the infection or not. If your test comes back negative, your GP will be able to advise you if you need to be re-tested.
Syphilis infection is curable but will not go away on its own. If left untreated, it can develop into its tertiary stage and this can be fatal and cause irreversible damage to the brain, heart, and nervous system. This is why it’s important to get a blood test to identify if you have contracted the infection as soon as you develop symptoms or come into contact with it.
Once you have gone through the proper treatment for syphilis, it will not return unless you have come into contact with the bacteria again. We can help with:
Can syphilis be cured? How can I get rid of syphilis?
Syphilis can be treated and cured. However, at the tertiary (third) stage of syphilis, some of the damage done to the body cannot be cured. This is why it is important to diagnose and treat syphilis as early as possible. Syphilis can be cured through the use of antibiotics and penicillin injections. This should be prescribed by your doctor depending on what stage of syphilis you are at.
Syphilis is typically treated using penicillin injections or a course of antibiotic treatment. Syphilis treatment is dependent on the stage of your infection:
Syphilis is usually treated with penicillin injections or a course of antibiotic medication and this has been shown to effectively cure syphilis at early stages of the infection. The effectiveness of the treatment is dependent on the dosage administered at different stages.
Syphilis is easily curable in the first stage of the illness. If you have progressed from primary syphilis to secondary or tertiary syphilis, higher doses will be required. There are no home remedies or over-the-counter medications that will effectively rid you of syphilis. Once you have finished your prescribed treatment, you should no longer show symptoms of syphilis, carry the bacteria and pass it on to others if it is caught early enough.
The benefits of syphilis treatment far outweigh the side effects. Side effects may include some flu-like symptoms but usually pass after 24 hours. You can relieve these side effects by drinking plenty of water and taking pain-relieving medication. Other side-effects of the penicillin injection and antibiotic treatment for syphilis can include:
You may be at risk of an allergic reaction from a penicillin injection. In this case, your doctor will be able to prescribe you an antibiotic treatment that will work for you. You should see your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms:
If you have trouble breathing after syphilis treatment you should call 999 for the emergency services right away.
You should see your doctor to get diagnosed and treated for syphilis as soon as you notice symptoms such as rashes or chancre sores. The faster you book an appointment for a blood test, the easier syphilis will be to treat. You should see your doctor if you think you may be at risk of syphilis because symptoms are not always evident.
Syphilis can be cured in the latent and late stage with the right treatment. Typically, this will be treated with daily injections of penicillin for a period of time and a course of antibiotic treatment for 28 days depending on your doctor’s recommendation. If serious damage has been done to the body due to the extensive period of time the bacteria has been in the body, this cannot be reversed or cured with treatment. Severe damage could include heart problems, stroke, blindness and neurosyphilis.
If you are undergoing treatment for syphilis, you should abstain from sexual activity as you are still contagious until the treatment has been successful. You will also be susceptible to other STIs if you continue to engage in sexual activity.
You should avoid any form of sexual activity until 2 weeks after your treatment for syphilis has ended. Sexual activity can include vaginal, anal, oral sex and close skin contact such as kissing. When you have completed your treatment for syphilis, you should get tested again to ensure you are cured.
Once you have completed your syphilis treatment, which can be an injection of penicillin or a regimen of antibiotic treatment, you should be cured of syphilis. You will know for sure if you are cured by having another blood test for syphilis. Your symptoms should subside when you start your syphilis treatment.
If you have been treated for syphilis, you can catch syphilis again if you have sexual intercourse with someone who is carrying syphilis or if you come into direct contact with a chancre sore. You should get regular STI testing if you are sexually active.
Although there is no vaccine to aid your immune system if you come into contact with the syphilis bacteria, there are a few preventative steps you can take in order to avoid contracting syphilis.
Taking steps to reduce your risk of contracting syphilis also helps reduce your risk of contracting other sexually transmitted infections. We can help with:
How can I protect myself from STIs? And how effective are condoms in preventing STIs?
There are various ways to reduce your risk of contracting syphilis. However, as there is no vaccine and syphilis can be contracted through direct contact with a syphilis sore, these methods are not 100% guaranteed to prevent syphilis. Some ways to reduce your risk include:
You may be at risk of contracting syphilis if you:
Unless symptoms such as syphilis sores or rashes are evident and clearly visible on your partner’s body, you will not be able to tell if they have syphilis or not.
To know for sure, you can ask your partner to take a blood test for syphilis and be tested for other STIs. Ideally, you should have a STI screen after every partner prior to having intercourse. If your partner has syphilis, you should abstain from activities such as sex and other bodily contact such as kissing until the infection has been treated and your partner is cured. This will stop further spread of the infection.
Syphilis can lead to serious complications if left untreated over many years but it poses a more immediate threat to pregnant women and their babies in the womb.
You can catch syphilis while pregnant and before pregnancy. We can help with:
Can syphilis be cured during pregnancy? What are the symptoms of syphilis in pregnancy?
It is possible to contract syphilis during any stage of pregnancy. Syphilis can cause problems for both a mother and her unborn baby. Signs of syphilis during pregnancy are similar to the regular symptoms of syphilis:
The syphilis infection can be passed from a mother to her unborn child through the placenta while the baby is still in the womb.
Syphilis can also be passed from a mother to her child during childbirth when the baby comes into contact with a genital lesion as it passes through the birth canal.
Syphilis cannot be transmitted from a mother to her child through breastfeeding unless there is a skin lesion present on the breast.
If you suspect you have been infected with syphilis either during pregnancy or before getting pregnant, you should first see a doctor to get diagnosed. Syphilis can sometimes be diagnosed through a physical exam from a doctor. Your doctor will be able to identify syphilis ulcers or rashes on the body. They will be able to examine areas such as the skin, vagina, anus, mouth and throat area. A doctor will also be able to take a sample of your blood to test for syphilis.
A blood test for syphilis involves examining your blood sample to identify any antibodies that have been produced to fight against the syphilis bacteria. A positive test will indicate if you have contracted syphilis. Based on your results, your doctor will be able to prescribe the right treatment to help you get rid of the infection. It is important to get tested and treated early when you are pregnant as syphilis can have very adverse consequences for you and your child.
If you have syphilis whilst pregnant, it should be easy to treat with a penicillin and antibiotic regimen. Other forms of treatment outside penicillin are not as effective for treating syphilis in pregnant women.
Syphilis is routinely tested for at 12 weeks gestation along with HIV and hepatitis. Getting tested will reduce the chance of you and your baby developing complications from syphilis during birth or while the baby is growing in the womb if you are found to have it. You should be going to all your prenatal care check-ups and get regular serologic testing (blood testing which looks for antibodies in your blood) after you have been treated to ensure the safety of you and your baby, as well as getting ultrasound to check on the development of your baby. According to the World Health Organisation, pregnant women with syphilis have a 52% higher chance of experiencing complications than pregnant women without syphilis.
Syphilis can cause very serious health problems for both mother and fetus. These include:
Although syphilis can have severe consequences for you during pregnancy, there is no evidence to suggest that syphilis will affect your ability to get pregnant. You can contract syphilis during pregnancy and before you get pregnant.
Syphilis can pose a very significant risk to your health if left untreated for too long.
We have some helpful information on what complications can arise from the tertiary stage of syphilis. We can help with:
What are the long-term effects of syphilis? What complications can come from syphilis?
You are most at risk of serious complications from syphilis if you have contracted syphilis and left it untreated for over 2 years. After the secondary stage of syphilis, complications are more likely because syphilis is a progressive infection and will become worse over time. You are also at a high risk of complications from syphilis if you are at a late latent stage (more than a year after contracting the infection). If you have latent syphilis, you will not be able to tell unless you have a blood test because symptoms do not occur.
Women who are pregnant and have contracted syphilis either before getting pregnant or during pregnancy are also at risk of developing serious complications from syphilis. These complications can include miscarriage or premature birth. It is also possible for a mother to pass on syphilis to a fetus in the womb.
Those who already have another STI such as HIV are at a higher risk of complications from syphilis. HIV is an immunodeficiency virus and adversely affects the immune system. This can exacerbate the consequences of late tertiary stage syphilis.
At the tertiary (late) stage of syphilis, the infection can become fatal. Permanent damage to your organs can occur that cannot be reversed or cured. Complications from syphilis occur when lesions develop on the arteries of the heart, nervous system tissue, skin, bones and brain.
Cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks can occur at the tertiary stage of syphilis. Sometimes this can happen between 10 and 25 years after coming into contact with the syphilis bacteria. If left untreated, the aorta can swell. This is the body’s main artery. This can cause chronic inflammation in the affected areas, which leads to heart disease. Syphilis can also affect the heart valves and blood vessels which can lead to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.
The nervous system is a collection of nerves and cells that transmit signals to different parts of the body. When syphilis affects the nervous system, it can affect multiple organs and areas in the body. It can lead to sudden and searing pains in the rectum, bladder, larynx and stomach and can cause vomiting. The effect on the nervous system can also cause ocular problems such as blindness, meningitis and strokes. The effect on the nervous system can also lead to dementia.
Gummas are small bumps that can be found around your body. They can be caused by syphilis and are made up of dead tissue and fibres. Gummas can be commonly found on your bones, skin, liver, stomach, scalp, legs and eyes.
Contracting syphilis can increase your chances of contracting HIV. You are 5 times more likely to catch HIV if you are carrying syphilis. This is because open syphilis sores allow HIV to enter your body easily while you are having sex.
Gastric syphilis is a rare complication that can arise in the tertiary stage of syphilis. It affects the stomach and can lead to pain in the stomach area, nausea, vomiting, a loss of appetite and weight loss.
In rare cases syphilis can also affect the pituitary gland, causing hypopituitarism. The main function of the pituitary gland is to secrete hormones into your bloodstream and these hormones can affect growth, metabolism, cortisol and various organs. Hypopituitarism can cause premature ageing in adults and dwarfism in children as it is the result of reduced hormone secretion.
There is a lot of information available about STIs, how they are transmitted and how they are treated. However, not all resources online are reliable.
It is important to be able to know the difference between syphilis facts and myths. We can help with:
Can syphilis affect the brain? And can syphilis disappear on its own?
Fact: syphilis can make you confused In the final stage of syphilis, the illness can affect the nervous system and brain, sometimes resulting in diseases like dementia.
Myth: syphilis does not exist anymore Syphilis was very prevalent in the 15th century. The limited knowledge about syphilis and lack of treatment methods available made the illness hard to control. Syphilis is still present today but prevention, detection and treatment methods are much more effective. Reported cases of syphilis in the UK have increased significantly from 2009 (2,847) to 2018 (7,541).
Myth: can only get syphilis through sex Sexual intercourse is not the only way to contract syphilis. Syphilis can be contracted through direct contact with a chancre sore or syphilis rash. This can happen through kissing, oral sex or using the same sex toys as someone with the infection as well as using a dirty needle.
Myth: syphilis is not curable Syphilis is easily cured using penicillin and antibiotic treatment. However, if syphilis is left untreated for too long, it can be harder to treat and organ damage can be irreversible.
Syphilis will not go away without treatment. You will need penicillin or antibiotic treatment that can only be prescribed by a doctor. Although symptoms may appear and disappear such as chancre sores and skin rash, syphilis is a progressive illness which means it will continue to get worse. Syphilis can eventually cause damage to your organs such as your heart, liver, eyes, brain and skin.
It is normal to feel slightly embarrassed, upset and worried about the news that you have contracted an STI like syphilis. You may feel hesitant about informing your partner(s) that you have caught the infection. However, syphilis can cause serious health risks if left untreated. Always make sure you are tested for other STIs as they often co-exist.
You should always inform your partner(s) if you have syphilis so they can get tested themselves. Having this conversation with your partner lets them make an informed decision about their health. This is particularly important if your partner is pregnant because syphilis can have adverse effects on both mother and child.
Syphilis is still contagious during treatment. You should refrain from sexual activity until you take another test that confirms you do not have the infection anymore.
Most cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). This virus can also cause genital warts. The HPV virus spreads through skin-to-skin contact, including oral sex, so condoms do not entirely prevent HPV. The two types of HPV that usually cause cervical cancer, HPV 16 and 18, can be prevented with the HPV vaccination. Although syphilis does not directly cause cervical cancer, sexually transmitted infections can increase the risk of cervical cancer. This is mainly due to the fact that sexually transmitted infections are often transmitted together.
Other factors that can increase your risk of cervical cancer include:
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