Syphilis

Specialty of Genitourinary Medicine

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a highly contagious sexually-transmitted infection (STI). Compare to other STIs it is relatively uncommon, but cases are becoming more frequent.

Is it serious?

Syphilis can be effectively treated with antibiotics and is curable. If detected early and treated you are not likely to experience major symptoms.

Left untreated, however, the condition can progress to affect many areas of the body and can cause serious problems such as blindness, dementia, meningitis, heart problems, and possibly death.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms start to appear 2-3 weeks after infection and can include:

  • small, painless sores around the penis, anus, or vagina
  • wollen glands in the neck or groin

After a few weeks symptoms can develop to include:

  • genital warts
  • red rashes anywhere on the body but particularly on the hands and feet
  • white patches on the inside of the mouth
  • fever
  • hair loss
  • muscle aches

How is syphilis diagnosed?

If you experience the symptoms above, it’s important to visit your GP or local sexual health clinic promptly. They will perform a syphilis test, which usually involves:

  • taking blood samples to confirm the presence of antibodies reacting to the bacteria that cause syphilis.
  • a physical examination of your genitals
  • using a swab to take fluid samples from sores

What causes syphilis?

Syphilis is an infection that is passed from person to person through sex, which can include vaginal, anal, or oral sex. You can also get infected by sharing sex toys with someone who has syphilis.

If you are pregnant, you can pass syphilis to your unborn baby, which is why pregnant women are usually screened for syphilis around 8 weeks into pregnancy.

Finally, you can catch syphilis by sharing needles with another drug user who is infected.

How can syphilis be prevented?

You can reduce your risk of being infected if you:

  • always practice protected sex
  • wash sex toys each time after use
  • avoid sharing needles with drug users

How is syphilis treated?

Treating syphilis is straightforward and involves taking an injection of penicillin, a type of antibiotic. You can take a different antibiotic if you are allergic to penicillin.

If you have had syphilis for longer than a year you might need more than one injection.

To prevent yourself from being infected again, you should avoid sex for two weeks after your injection.

Penicillin can cause flu-like symptoms such as a headache, muscle pain and fever, but these symptoms tend to only last for 24 hours.

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