Syphilis

Written by Dr Claudia Pastides, 15th March 2019

An infection passed on through sexual contact that affects both men and women. People often experience painless erosions on the skin of the vagina or penis. It is very easy to infect your sexual partner and untreated long term infection can cause permanent health problems.

Causes

Syphilis is caused by a spirochaete bacterium called Treponema pallidum. Syphilis is easily treated with antibiotics, however if left untreated it can cause problems throughout the body, including affecting the kidneys, brain, eyes, liver and nervous system.

Risk factors

  • Having multiple sexual partners puts you at increased risk of sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis
  • Sexual intercourse without using a condom
  • Syphilis is more common in men who have sex with men

Typical Symptoms

There are 3 predominant stages of syphilis and symptoms vary with each stage.

  • Primary syphilis - Painless ulcer (called a chancre) mainly affecting the genitals
  • Secondary syphilis (a few weeks after the ulcer occurs) - All over body non-itchy rash, swollen lymph nodes, fever, muscle aches
  • Tertiary syphilis (10-30 years after the primary infection) - Permanent problems with the brain, heart, bones, joints, eyes

Common Treatment

  • Antibiotics

When to speak to a doctor

If you think you might have syphilis, it is important to speak to a doctor. Syphilis is best tested for and treated at a sexual health clinic.To find your local NHS sexual health clinic, go to https://www.nhs.uk/service-search/sexual-health-information-and-support/locationsearch/734


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Prevention

Syphilis can be managed and prevented by:

  • Always using a condom
  • Getting regular screenings for sexually transmitted infections
  • Asking your partner to be tested for sexually transmitted infections
  • Avoiding sexual contact until treatment has been completed