Jan 2009


Syphilis is becoming more common in the UK. It is a bacterial infection, it is usually sexually transmitted.

The signs and symptoms are the same in both men and women. They can be difficult to recognise and may take up to 3 months to show after having sexual contact with an infected person. Syphilis has several stages. The primary and secondary stages are very infectious.

Primary stage:

One or more painless sores appear at the place where the bacteria entered the body. On average, this will be after 21 days. You may not notice them. These sores can appear anywhere on the body but mainly;

  • Around the anus and mouth
  • On the penis and foreskin, and the cervix in women
  • Around the opening of the urethra -where you pee from, and the clitoris and vulva

The sore (or sores) are very infectious and may take from 2 to 6 weeks to heal.

Secondary stage:

If the infection remains untreated the secondary stage usually occurs 3-6 weeks after the appearance of sores. The symptoms include;

  • A non-itchy rash covering the whole body or appearing in patches
  • Flat warty-looking growths around the anus in both sexes and around the vulva in women
  • A flu-like illness, a feeling of tiredness and loss of appetite, accompanied by swollen glands – this can last for weeks or months
  • White patches on the tongue or roof of the mouth
  • Patchy hair loss

When these symptoms are present syphilis is very infectious and may be sexually transmitted to a partner(s). Treatment at any time during these first stages of syphilis will cure the infection.

Latent stage:

Latent syphilis refers to the presence of untreated syphilis. You can have no symptoms or signs of the infection, which diagnosed by a blood test. If left untreated, you may develop symptomatic late syphilis. This would usually develop after more than 10 years. It is then that syphilis can affect the heart, and possibly the nervous system.

If treatment is given during the latent stage the infection can be cured. However, if there has been heart or nervous-system damage before treatment is started this may be irreversible.

How syphilis is passed on:

  • Having sex with someone who has the infection
  • A mother to unborn baby

The tests for syphilis:

A blood sample is taken:

  • If you have a sore, a specimen of fluid is taken from this and looked at under a microscope
  • Your genital area and whole body are examined by the doctor or nurse
  • Samples are taken, using a small swab, from any sores

A sample of urine is taken:

  • Women are given a pelvic examination
  • None of these tests should be painful, but they may be slightly uncomfortable.

Diagnosis and symptoms

Samples taken during the examination are looked at under a microscope to check for infection. Samples are sent to a laboratory for testing. The result is usually available within one week.

If you are told that you have syphilis a health advisor will explain the infection to you and answer any questions you may have. You will also be asked about your sexual partner(s), so that, if necessary, they can get treatment as well.

If it is suspected that you have the early infectious stages of syphilis, you should not have oral, anal or vaginal sex involving contact between your partner and any sores or rashes you may have until the treatment is completed.

Treatment for syphilis is usually a two-week course of penicillin injections or, in some cases, antibiotic tablets or capsules.

Once you have completed your treatment, you will be asked to attend the clinic at regular intervals for blood tests.

Once syphilis has been successfully treated, it will not come back unless you become re-infected. However your blood test will be positive in any future tests – e.g. immigration reasons. Make sure you get a certificate from your clinic explaining about your treatment.
Remember, after treatment, using condoms during sex can reduce your risk of getting or passing on sexually transmitted infections


Syphilis is easy to catch.
Syphilis is easy to diagnose.
Syphilis is easy to treat.

What next?

For more information contact us: 07788 415522 or
email: overtherainbow2@dchft.nhs.uk

At Over The Rainbow staff are present Tuesday - Friday, 10am to 5pm , Bournemouth and at other venues throughout the county.

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