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Syphilis

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STD) caused by bacteria that gets into the blood stream through the eyes, mouth, vagina, anus or broken skin. If left untreated, Syphilis can cause serious health problems.

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How do I get syphilis?

The bacteria that cause syphilis are called Treponema pallidum. They can enter your body if you have close contact with an infected sore, normally during vaginal, anal or oral sex, or by sharing sex toys with someone who is infected.

Pregnant women can pass the condition on to their unborn baby, which can cause stillbirth or the death of the baby shortly after labour. It may also be possible to catch syphilis if you are an injecting drug user and you share a needle with somebody who is infected. It is extremely rare for syphilis to be spread through blood transfusions, as all blood transfusions are tested for syphilis.

Syphilis also cannot be spread by using the same toilet, clothing, cutlery or bathroom as an infected person, as the bacteria cannot survive for long outside the human body.

Do I have syphilis?

It usually takes 10 days to 3 months for the symptoms to present. In some cases, people don’t have any noticeable symptoms. Someone infected with Syphilis can spread it to others during sexual intercourse, even if they have no signs or symptoms of the infection.

The symptoms appear in 3 stages:

  1. Syphilis is a bacterial infection that in the early stages causes a painless but highly infectious sore called a chancre (pronounced “sh-an-ker”) on your genitals or around the mouth. The sore lasts for up to six weeks before disappearing, even without treatment.
  2. Secondary symptoms then occur about 2 to 12 weeks after the first symptoms such as a rash, flu-like illness or patchy hair loss may then develop. These symptoms also go away – even untreated – but you still have the infection. You might get the rash again over the next 1-2 years. Note that this is a very contagious time!
  3. The late or tertiary stage of syphilis usually occurs after many years and can cause serious conditions, such as heart problems, paralysis and blindness.

The symptoms of syphilis can be difficult to recognise. A simple blood test can usually be used to diagnose syphilis at any stage.

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How do you treat syphilis?

It can be treated with antibiotics, usually penicillin injections. If Syphilis is treated early, it can be cured with specific antibiotics. The treatment will cure Syphilis, but will not reverse any damage already done to your internal organs. When syphilis is treated properly, the later stages can be prevented.

You should tell all your sexual partners that you have Syphilis, as they will need to be tested and treated as well. You’ll need to get follow-up testing to make sure the infection is gone.

How do I prevent syphilis?

The only guaranteed way to prevent a syphilis infection is to avoid sexual contact or to only have sexual contact with a faithful partner who has been tested and does not have the infection.

You can reduce your risk of catching syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections (STDs) by:

  • using a male condom or female condom during vaginal, oral and anal sex
  • using a dental dam (a square of plastic) during oral sex
  • avoiding sharing sex toys