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What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a bacterial infection caused by a bacterium (bug) called Treponema pallidum. It enters the body through tiny breaks in the skin, mainly in the mouth or genital area. It can be passed through oral, vaginal or anal sexual contact. It can be passed through breaks in the skin or from touching a sore on a person who has syphilis.
What are the symptoms of syphilis?
Most people with syphilis don’t show any symptoms, but they may also experience a range of symptoms that may present as other diseases.
Syphilis can cause a painless ulcer on your genitals (or around the mouth with oral sex). The ulcer usually heals up and disappears after a few weeks. Other symptoms, such as a skin rash and sore throat, develop and then these also disappear a few weeks later. After that, there are usually no symptoms.
Some people don't notice any symptoms at all and don't know they have the infection.
There are different stages of syphilis, and at times the infection may be latent when no symptoms are present.
The first sign of syphilis is a painless sore, usually on the genitals but may be at other sites of sexual contact. The sore may occur in hidden sites (e.g., cervix, mouth, anus) and because it is usually painless it may go unnoticed.
The sore usually appears three to four weeks after infection but sometimes it takes longer. The glands in the groin area may also become swollen.
The sore will disappear of its own accord within a few weeks. Even though the sore heals you still have the syphilis infection and can pass it on to others.
Any genital sore must be examined by a doctor even if it starts to heal and it is small and painless.
Sometimes a rash will appear quite suddenly about six weeks after infection. It may appear on the body, face, arms and often on the palms and soles of the feet.
The type and extent of the rash will vary from person to person and even vary on different parts of the body of the same person. It may be very obvious but it may be so mild as to pass unnoticed, and often disappears as suddenly as it appeared. The rash lasts up to four to six weeks.
There may also be one or more of the following symptoms: mouth ulcers, headache, swollen glands, fever, hair loss, general tiredness and flat warty growths in the genital or anal region.
A person in the primary or secondary stage of syphilis is very infectious because the sores and rashes are full of syphilis bacteria. There is a very high chance of infecting a sexual partner.
One in three people who have contracted syphilis and remain untreated will suffer serious damage to the nervous system, heart, brain, or other organs, and death may result. This can occur 1–20 years after the start of the infection.
How serious is syphilis?
Syphilis can go on to cause serious life-threatening conditions years later if it is left untreated. One in three people who have contracted syphilis and remain untreated will suffer serious damage to the nervous system, heart, brain, or other organs, and death may result.
Women can pass syphilis to their baby if they become pregnant when contracting the infection. Infected babies can become very sick. This can cause the baby to have serious mental and physical disabilities.
Syphilis can also cause miscarriage or still-birth.
How do I get tested for syphilis?
Syphilis is diagnosed by taking a blood test. Find a local clinic now.
What is the treatment for syphilis?
If diagnosed early, syphilis is easily treated with antibiotics, usually penicillin injections. Other antibiotics are available for those who are allergic to penicillin.
However, syphilis can go on to cause serious life-threatening conditions years later if it is left untreated.
Other important information about syphilis
It is important to seek diagnosis and treatment of syphilis early if you think you have it, because late-stage damage cannot be undone.
If you are diagnosed with syphilis, you’ll need to inform anyone you have had sexual contact with in the last two months. It is important that they are tested and treated too. Your health professional can help you deal with this situation, or read our section on How do I tell a partner?
You should use condoms or avoid sex for seven days after your treatment is finished, so you don’t pass syphilis on to anyone else.
If you have a partner you should both be treated and either use condoms or don’t have sex until the treatment is completed for both of you, or you risk catching syphilis again.
You should have another sexual health check after three months to check the status of your sexual health.