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Home Topics Infectious Diseases Infections A-Z Syphilis General Information

General Information

This fact sheet gives basic, non-technical information on syphilis. The information in the fact sheets may be especially useful for those teaching about sexual health or preparing projects on sexually transmitted infections. Click on a question below to scroll straight to that topic:

 

What is syphilis?

  • Syphilis is a sexually acquired infection caused by Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum, a spirochete bacterium.
  • In the UK, syphilis infection is relatively uncommon but diagnoses in men and women have increased over the past decade.
  • In pregnant women where infection can cause miscarriage, still birth, or foetal abnormality.

 

Who gets syphilis?

  • Anyone who has sex can get syphilis. People most at risk are those having unprotected sexual intercourse (i.e. not using a condom), those with more than one sexual partner, and those who change partners frequently.

 

How do you catch syphilis?

  • Syphilis is caught through unprotected vaginal, oral or anal intercourse or genital contact with an infected partner.
  • Syphilis cannot be caught by casual contact (toilet seats, swimming pools and saunas).
  • A pregnant woman with infectious syphilis can pass the infection to her foetus via the placenta or during birth.

 

How do you know that you have syphilis?

  • The symptoms of syphilis are not specific. Initial presentation is usually one or more painless but highly infectious sores (primary infection) which appear at the site of infection. These sores disappear within two to six weeks in the absence of treatment.
  • Secondary symptoms may develop 6 weeks to 6 months after the onset of primary sores. Later symptoms are highly variable, but may include a rash on the palms or soles.
  • Late syphilis occurs four or more years after an untreated primary infection. Complications may occur in the mucocutaneous tissue, heart, respiratory tract or central nervous system.

 

How serious is syphilis?

  • Infection during pregnancy usually results in miscarriage, stillbirth or a congenitally infected baby. Maternal infection, however, is detectable and entirely treatable which prevents transmission to the baby.
  • If left undetected syphilis will eventually lead to late syphilis in about 40 percent of people.

 

How can you protect yourself against syphilis?

  • Sexually active people can reduce their risk of syphilis by reducing their numbers of partners and using condoms during sexual intercourse.

 

How is syphilis diagnosed?

  • Syphilis can be diagnosed by detection of the organism in the ulcer. Antibodies to syphilis can also be detected in the blood. Samples must be taken by a health care professional.
  • All pregnant women should be tested for syphilis to prevent transmission to the foetus.
  • Genitourinary medicine clinics (also called STI clinics) have the equipment and facilities for testing and for contacting, testing and treating sexual partners. Details of these clinics can be found in the telephone book, from your local hospital or from the NHS choices sexual health website. Clinics are completely confidential and will not inform GPs of results unless requested to do so. You can attend one of these clinics at any age (even if you are under the age of consent to sex which is 16).
  • A person with suspected syphilis should also be tested for other sexually transmitted infections which may be present without symptoms.

 

How is syphilis treated?

  • Syphilis can be treated with antibiotics.
  • All current and recent sexual partners should be tested and treated to prevent re-infection and the further spread of disease. Treatment should be offered whether or not they show any signs of infection.

 

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