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Syphilis

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What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by bacteria called Treponema pallidum. Syphilis is not a common infection in the U.K., the majority of the cases of syphilis in the U.K. were contracted in countries where syphilis is still widespread.

Syphilis develops in three stages:-

  • Stage 1 – known as the primary stage.
  • Stage 2 – known as the secondary stage.
  • Stage 3 – known as the latent stage.

How is syphilis passed on and how can I avoid it?

Syphilis is passed on by coming into contact with a syphilis sore during close sexual contact, including oral and anal sex. Syphilis can also be passed on from a mother to her unborn child.

Syphilis can be prevented by the correct and consistent use of condoms and dental dams. If you use sex toys you should also cover them with a condom and ensure they are kept clean and never share them.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of syphilis are different with every stage and are the same in men and women, the primary and secondary stages are very infectious.

Primary stage symptoms can take from 10 days to 3 weeks to develop after first becoming infected but this can be sooner or later than this. Some people will have no symptoms at all, symptoms if present include: –

  • Painless red sores, which develop at the place where the bacteria entered the body, usually the vagina, vulva, anus, penis or mouth. Occasionaly sores might develop on lips, mouth, fingers or bottom. These sores are called ‘chancre’ and disappear after 2 to 8 weeks even if they are left untreated. Most people will have just the one sore and so it can go unnoticed, the sore is roughly size of a small coin. At this stage you might also have swollen glands in the area near the sore, typically the glands in your groin area.

Secondary stage symptoms can develop several weeks or months after the sores appear, if the infection remains untreated. Symptoms include:

  • A blotchy rash that doesn’t itch or cause pain on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet but it may cover the entire body. This is the most common symptom.
  • Flu-like symptoms – fever, sore throat, aching muscles, headache, tiredness and loss of appetite.
  • Patchy hair loss can occur but this is less common.
  • Small, warty like growths on the vulva in women and around the anus in both women and men.

The signs of secondary syphilis may come and go over the next few months. Treatment at any time during these first two stages will cure the infection. It is important to visit your doctor or a G.U.M. clinic if you have any of these symptoms to avoid the progression of syphilis to the latent stage.

Latent stage symptoms develop if syphilis has been left untreated over a period of years. It is at this stage that syphilis can spread through the entire body, affecting the heart, muscles, brain and nervous system. This stage is very rare as syphilis has usually been spotted and treated in the earlier stages. At this stage syphilis is no longer contagious. This stage can last for years or even decades and can result in mental illness, blindness,impotence, heart disease, loss of co-ordination and even death.

How is syphilis diagnosed?

The only way to diagnose syphilis is with a blood test. If you suspect you might have syphilis the you should visit your doctor or G.U.M. clinic. Your doctor will normally begin by giving you a physical examination to look for the presence of growths, sores and/or rashes. If sores are present, the doctor will take a sample of the fluid and have it analysed under a microscope. A blood test will usually be taken to confirm the diagnosis. We have a test available on this website, for more information on this click here.

How is syphilis treated?

In the first 2 stages, syphilis is easily treated with antibiotic tablets and/or penicillin injections. You may also be prescribed a lotion for skin sores. Ensure your partner also gets examined and treated if necessary to avoid re-infection, you should also avoid sexual intercourse until you have both completed the treatment. After treatment you should have regular blood tests for 2 years to ensure that syphilis has gone. Once syphilis has been successfully treated it will not come back unless you become re-infected. If treatment is given during the latent stage, syphilis can be cured. However, if the infection has damaged the heart, brain or nervous system before treatment was started, the damage may be irreversible.

What long-term affect will syphilis have?

If left untreated then syphilis can cause serious health problems in both men and women. If a pregnant woman has untreated syphilis she can pass the infection to her baby in the womb. This can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or your child becoming infected with syphilis. Children born with syphilis may have symptoms at birth but most develop later. These symptoms include skin sores, rashes, fever, anaemia and various deformities. As infected infants become older they may develop the symptoms of latent stage syphilis, including damage to their bones and brain.

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