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Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a bacteria.

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What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a curable sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a bacteria (a type of germ) called Treponema pallidum.

If a syphilis infection is not treated, it can cause serious life threatening health problems* including damage to the nervous system (the brain, spinal cord and nerves) as well as the heart.

*These complications may take years to develop and do not happen very often in this country because the treatment works so well.

How could I get syphilis?

Syphilis can be passed from one person to another during sex and by direct skin contact with someone who has syphilis sores or rash. It is transmitted by having unprotected sex and oral sex but can also be passed on through rimming, fisting and even through skin to skin contact* (*this is rare).

How can I avoid getting syphilis?

It is recommended to use condoms or femidoms when having anal or vaginal sex and condoms or dams for oral sex, and rimming.

What are the symptoms?

Syphilis can develop in three stages:

  • primary syphilis
  • secondary syphilis
  • tertiary syphilis

Many people do not have any symptoms in the early stages. If you do get symptoms, you might notice the following:

Primary syphilis

  • One or more sores or hard lumps at the areas the bacteria entered the body, for example: on the genital area, around the anus (arse) or in the mouth if you had oral sex. Often the sores are painless.
  • The sores of primary stage syphilis are very infectious and may take two to six weeks to heal.

Secondary syphilis

If untreated, the secondary stage usually occurs some weeks later. The symptoms include:

  • A painless rash that is not normally itchy. It can spread all over the body and is often seen on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet
  • Flat, warty-looking growths around the anus (arse) or vulva.
  • A flu-like illness, tiredness and loss of appetite, with swollen glands (this can last for weeks or months)
  • White patches on the tongue or roof of the mouth
  • Patchy hair loss

Tertiary syphilis

When syphilis remains untreated it sometimes goes into another phase known as tertiary syphilis after many years. This is when the syphilis starts to cause very serious damage to the heart, brain, eyes and nervous system. At this stage syphilis can be life-threatening.

How do I get tested for syphilis?

Testing for syphilis is done by taking a blood sample.

If you have syphilis we strongly recommend that your sexual partner(s) should also be tested.

You can get tested for syphilis (and other STIs) 7 days a week with our sexual health services at Birmingham LGBT.

Call us on 0121 643 0821

All of our services are free and confidential

How is syphilis treated?

Treated early enough syphilis is curable causing no permanent damage. Even at tertiary stage syphilis is still curable, but any damage caused by the syphilis bacteria may be irreparable. Symptoms can be easy to miss, so it’s worth having regular sexual health check-ups, including blood tests for syphilis, if you are sexually active and especially if you have unprotected (bareback, raw) sex with new partners.

Syphilis can be cured with antibiotic injections, or by taking a course of antibiotics.

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