What you need to know

Syphilis is a much more complicated bacterial STI. It can be spread by intimate close body contact and during all forms of sexual intercourse. If left untreated, syphilis can have serious effects on our health and could eventually (many years from infection) lead to the breakdown of many of the major organs such as the heart, liver and brain and may eventually result in death.

A pregnant woman can also pass the infection on to her unborn baby, known as congenital syphilis. This can be very serious and so if you are pregnant, you will be offered a routine antenatal screen.

Signs and symptoms

There are three stages to the development of Syphilis in the body.

One or more painless sores or ulcers appear (usually around the point of genital contact with the sores of an infected person). These could be external (on the vulva, penis, anus or mouth) or internal (in the vagina, rectum, tongue or throat). These sores are very infectious but usually disappear after two to six weeks.

The bacteria enters the bloodstream and over the next one to two years, infected people will have other symptoms:

  • a painless rash that can be anywhere on the body, but typically on the torso, hands and feet – this rash will come and go and unless it appears in the mouth, is not infectious
  • white patches on the roof of the mouth or tongue
  • patchy hair loss
  • mild flu-type symptoms including loss of appetite and tiredness, along with swollen glands – this can last for weeks or months
  • wart-like growths around the vulva and anus or mouth

When syphilis remains untreated for many years, it becomes third stage syphilis. The infection can start to cause very serious damage to the brain, nervous system, heart and eyes. At this stage syphilis can be life-threatening. This is why it is important to get tested for syphilis as soon as possible after unprotected sex, so that it doesn’t progress to this stage.


Testing and treatment

Syphilis is tested for by collecting a swab from an ulcer and a blood test. This can be done in your sexual health clinic. The result will be available to you within two weeks.

If you do not have any symptoms, you can still be tested for syphilis with a blood test. This can be done at the Beckenham Beacon sexual health clinic or you may be eligible to receive an online test.

Remember to make sure that your partner(s) also get tested.