Health A to Z
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that's usually caught by having sex with someone who's infected.
It's important to get tested and treated as soon as possible if you think you might have syphilis, as it can cause serious problems if it's left untreated.
It can usually be cured with a short course of antibiotics.
You can catch syphilis more than once, even if you've been treated for it before.
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The symptoms of syphilis aren't always obvious and may eventually disappear, but you'll usually remain infected unless you get treated.
Some people with syphilis have no symptoms.
Symptoms can include:
If it's left untreated for years, syphilis can spread to the brain or other parts of the body and cause serious, long-term problems.
Read more about the symptoms of syphilis.
You should get tested as soon as possible if you're worried you could have syphilis, because:
The best place to get tested is your nearest genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic or sexual health clinic.
The test for syphilis usually involves a blood test and removing a sample of fluid from any sores using a swab (similar to a cotton bud).
Read more about testing for syphilis.
Syphilis is usually treated with either:
You should avoid any kind of sexual activity or close sexual contact with another person until at least two weeks after your treatment finishes.
Read more about treating syphilis.
Syphilis is mainly spread through close contact with an infected sore.
This usually happens during vaginal, anal or oral sex, or by sharing sex toys with someone who's infected. Anyone who's sexually active is potentially at risk.
Pregnant women with syphilis can also pass the infection to their unborn baby. Read more about Syphilis in pregnancy below.
It may be possible to catch syphilis if you're an injecting drug user and you share needles with somebody who's infected, or through blood transfusions (this is very rare in the UK as all blood donations are tested for syphilis).
Syphilis can't be spread by using the same toilet, clothing, cutlery or bathroom as an infected person.
Syphilis can't always be prevented, but if you're sexually active you can reduce your risk by practising safer sex:
These measures can also reduce your risk of catching other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
If you're an injecting drug user, don't use other people's needles or share your needles with others.
The symptoms of syphilis are similar for men and women. They're often mild and difficult to recognise, so you may pass on the infection without knowing you have it.
The symptoms also tend to change over time and may come and go.
Even if the symptoms do improve, there's still a risk you could pass the infection on or develop serious problems if you don't get treatment.
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The first symptoms of syphilis usually develop around two or three weeks after infection, although they can start later than this.
This stage of the infection is known as "primary syphilis".
These symptoms usually pass within two to eight weeks. But if the infection isn't treated, it may progress to a second stage (see below).
Further symptoms may develop a few weeks after the initial symptoms have passed. This is known as "secondary syphilis".
Symptoms of secondary syphilis include:
These symptoms usually pass within a few weeks, although they may come and go over several months before they disappear.
You'll still be infected even if you don't have symptoms. This is known as "latent syphilis" and it can last for decades and lead to serious problems if not treated (see below).
It's still possible to pass on the infection during this stage, although this usually only happens within two years of becoming infected.
Without treatment, a syphilis infection can last for years or decades without causing any symptoms.
Eventually, it can spread to parts of the body such as the brain or nerves and cause serious and potentially life-threatening problems. This is known as "tertiary syphilis".
People with tertiary syphilis may experience:
Syphilis is still treatable at this stage, but it's sometimes not possible to reverse any damage that's already been done.
The only way to find out if you have syphilis is to get tested.
Syphilis won't normally go away on its own and can cause serious problems if left undiagnosed and untreated.
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You should get tested for syphilis if:
It's particularly important to get tested in these cases if you've had unprotected sex, you have multiple sexual partners, you're a man who has sex with men, or you've had sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the past.
The best place to get tested for syphilis is a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic or sexual health clinic.
These clinics are staffed by healthcare professionals with special expertise in STIs and they tend to have easier access to the tests and treatments for syphilis than your local GP surgery.
You also don't have to pay for treatment if you go to a GUM or sexual health clinic. If you go to your GP surgery for treatment, you may have to pay a prescription charge.
You can go to your GP if you prefer, although they may refer you to a GUM or sexual health clinic if they suspect you might have an STI.
You'll be asked about your sexual history and habits, and whether you're experiencing any symptoms.
To diagnose syphilis, you'll usually have a:
You should also be tested for other STIs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea, as it's possible to have more than one STI at a time. Some results may be available the same day, while others may take a week or two to come back.
You should avoid having sex or close sexual contact with anyone else until you get your test results.
Read more about what happens at an STI clinic.
Syphilis can usually be treated with a short course of antibiotics.
It's important to get it treated because it won't normally go away on its own and it can cause serious problems if left untreated.
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A short course of antibiotics can usually cure syphilis. These are only available on prescription, so you'll need to be tested for syphilis to get them.
The type of treatment you need depends on how long you've had syphilis.
More serious cases that affect the brain are usually treated with daily penicillin injections given into your buttocks or a vein for two weeks, or a 28 day course of antibiotic tablets if you can't have penicillin.
Follow-up blood tests will be recommended once treatment finishes to check that it has worked.
You may experience some side effects shortly after treatment.
Around two in every five people experience short-lived flu-like symptoms, such as:
These symptoms usually only last 24 hours and can often be treated with paracetamol. Get advice from your doctor if they're severe or don't settle down.
There's also a risk of having an allergic reaction shortly after a penicillin injection. You'll be monitored after treatment to check for this and will be treated if it occurs.
Avoid any kind of sexual activity or close sexual contact with another person until at least two weeks after your treatment finishes.
This includes vaginal, anal and oral sex, as well as close skin contact.
If you have sex during treatment, you could become infected again or you could pass the infection on to someone else.
Your current and previous sexual partners should be tested and treated for syphilis as well, as leaving the infection untreated can lead to serious problems.
How far back you need to go depends on how long you had syphilis before it was diagnosed and treated.
You can choose to either notify your previous sexual partners yourself, with support and advice from clinic staff, or the clinic can contact them by letter or phone and advise them to go for a check-up.
If the clinic contacts your previous sexual partners for you, your details will remain totally confidential and no information about you will be given out without your consent.