If you’ve had unprotected sex or are worried about possible infection with syphilis or other STIs, get tested as soon as possible – even if you have no symptoms.

What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a bacterium called treponema pallidum.

Is syphilis a serious condition?

Syphilis can be treated and cured with antibiotics, but it is important that it is detected and treated as early as possible because, if left untreated, syphilis can cause serious and long-lasting health problems.

How is it transmitted and how can you prevent syphilis?

Sex and Syphilis

Syphilis is most commonly transmitted through anal, vaginal or oral sex, without a condom or dental dam, with someone who has syphilis. A person can transmit syphilis even if they have no symptoms.

Syphilis causes sores or infectious rashes. Contact with these sores and rashes is the main mode of transmission. This means that the infection can be transmitted through genital contact or sex, even without ejaculation.

How can I prevent syphilis being transmitted sexually?

Using condoms and dental dams correctly and consistently when having sex is the best way to prevent syphilis transmission. Make sure you use a new condom every time and remember that condoms or dental dams must cover sores and rashes, otherwise you won’t be protected.

Syphilis can also be transmitted through the shared use of sex toys. To reduce the risk of contracting syphilis, avoid sharing sex toys or make sure they are washed and covered with a new condom before use.

Regular testing for syphilis and other STIs is important, especially if you have more than one sexual partner. Talking to your partners about your sexual health and knowing their serostatus helps you to protect your sex life and that of your partners.

PrEP does not prevent the transmission of syphilis.

Needle sharing and blood transfusion

Syphilis can be transmitted through needle/syringe sharing. To reduce the risk, avoid sharing needles/syringes.

It is possible for syphilis to be transmitted through blood transfusions, but this is very rare as donation centers test blood for infections, including syphilis, before transfusions. If you are worried about a blood transfusion, tell your doctor.

Syphilis and pregnancy

Syphilis can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy (congenital syphilis). To avoid transmission of syphilis, it is important for pregnant women to be tested at their first antenatal visit, and after any time they think they have been exposed to syphilis infection.

If you test positive for syphilis, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to cure the infection. It is important that treatment is followed correctly, otherwise syphilis can be very dangerous for the baby and increase the risk of miscarriage or premature birth.

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

Many people with Syphilis will not notice any symptoms for years, so if you think you are likely to have Syphilis, don’t wait for symptoms to appear, but get tested straight away.

Without treatment, a Syphilis infection goes through different stages, can get worse and can spread to other parts of the body.

Primary syphilis

The first thing a person may notice is a painless growth (called chancre) – usually around the anus or genitals. It usually appears 2-3 weeks after infection, but not everyone has this symptom. Normally the chancre heals by itself, but without treatment the infection will progress and more symptoms and health problems will develop.

Secondary syphilis

A few weeks after the early symptoms have passed, you may start to feel sick, have a fever or headache and lose weight; you may get some blisters around your anus or genitals. You may also get a rash on your body, often on your palms or soles.

Latent syphilis

After this period, a person can live with syphilis for years without signs of infection. This is the ‘latent stage’ of infection. However, if syphilis is still undiagnosed and untreated, the infection will continue to create serious health problems.

Tertiary syphilis

If left untreated, syphilis will eventually cause serious health problems: irreversible damage to the heart, brain and nervous system, loss of sight, hearing, other problems. Getting tested and treated early means you can prevent it and make a full recovery.

How do you get tested for syphilis?

Regular testing for STIs, including Syphilis, is one of the best ways to take care of your health.

To get tested for syphilis, a professional will do a blood test. The test doesn’t hurt and will require a small amount of blood. A doctor (dermato-venerologist) can also examine your genital area, mouth, and throat to check for rashes or sores. If you have sores, a swab sample will be taken from that sore. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed about going for these tests, it’s a normal part of your health care.

If you test positive for syphilis, it is important to let your current or recent sexual partners know, as they will need to be tested too. Your doctor can give you advice on how to tell them. It is also recommended that you get tested for other STIs.

How is syphilis treated?

Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics. However, it’s important to get tested and treated as early as possible, as some health problems caused by tertiary syphilis can’t be fixed.

The specific antibiotics used to treat syphilis can vary from country to country. Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have about your treatment.

Your doctor is the one who will tell you exactly when you no longer have the infection in your body. He or she may recommend that you avoid sexual contact until the treatment is finished, until the sores have healed, and only when he or she says it’s okay to resume sexual activity.

Also remember that if you have been treated and cured of syphilis once, this does not make you immune, you can always reinfect yourself.

Syphilis and HIV

If you have been diagnosed with syphilis, you should also be tested for HIV. If you have an STI, including syphilis, your risk of getting HIV increases. This is because having an STI, especially one that causes wounds, creates a gateway for HIV to enter the body and multiply.

People living with HIV have a higher risk of getting syphilis. Especially in people who don’t take treatment or who have a lower CD4 count. You’re more vulnerable to infections like syphilis if your immune system is weaker. Syphilis can progress more quickly in people living with HIV, so if you know you are HIV positive and think you may have syphilis, it is important to get tested and treated as early as possible.

If you are taking antiretrovirals, talk to your doctor about how treatment for Syphilis might interact with ARV drugs.