Syphilis spreads easily and is caused by bacteria that live in warm, moist parts of the body like the mouth, penis, rectum or vagina.


The infection has three stages:

  • First stage (primary syphilis) – two to four weeks after becoming infected a painless sore (‘chancre’) may appear on the penis, in the mouth, rectum or vagina. This heals over. Glands near the sore may swell.
  • Second stage (secondary syphilis) – a few weeks or months later you may get a rash on your body, often on the palms of your hands or soles of your feet. You might feel ill, with a fever or headache. You may get ulcers, grey patches or growths of skin on or around your mouth or genitals.
  • Third or late stage (tertiary syphilis) – years later, syphilis can seriously damage your heart, brain and nervous system. The infection is usually detected by then.

How it’s passed on

Syphilis bacterium spread during unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sex through contact with the sores of the first stage or the rash of the second stage. Unless they are treated, someone can pass on syphilis for up to two years.

Using the male condom or Femidom (the female condom) cuts the risk, but only if the condom covers the sores or rash. Avoid touching sores or the rash.

Other types of contraception, such as the contraceptive pill, offer no protection against sexually transmitted infections.

Having syphilis makes it easier for someone to contract or pass on HIV.

Tests and treatment

There is a blood test for syphilis, and if you have a sore the fluid inside it will also be tested. Antibiotics, given by injection or tablets, cure it, but don’t have sex until the treatment has finished or you could pass on the infection. People you’ve had sex with also need to get checked – a clinic can let them know if you don’t want to. Untreated syphilis can cause serious heart, brain and nerve problems years later.

Most people get tested and treated for infections like syphilis at sexual health (or ‘GUM’) clinics. It is free and confidential – no one else, including your GP will be told about your visit. Some GP surgeries also test for and treat these infections.

The more people you have sex with, especially unprotected sex, the more chance you have of contracting infections like syphilis. You can have them without knowing, so regular check-ups are a good idea, especially if you are starting a new relationship and/or you want to stop using condoms with your partner.

Page content supplied by Copyright 2012 © Terrence Higgins Trust.

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