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Syphilis is an infection which is caused by bacteria. The bacteria live in warm, moist parts of the body such as inside the mouth, anus, penis, and vagina. It is easy pick up and easy to pass on.


Syphilis follows three stages each with its own set of symptoms. However, symptoms of syphilis don’t always show, many people diagnosed with syphilis never realised they had it until they got tested. Symptoms are the same for both men and women.

First Stage (Primary syphilis)

Two to four weeks after catching syphilis one or more painless sores may appear on the body, usually around the penis, vagina or mouth. It will heal and go away.

The glands nearest the sore (in the neck or groin) may swell up.

Second stage (Secondary syphilis)

Weeks to a few months later a rash may appear, often on the palms of your hands or soles of your feet: these small spots don't itch. You might also get a fever, headaches or feel unwell, often as if you have a very bad cold. During this time you are very infectious.

You may also get warty growths around your anus or vagina, or ulcers and grey patches of skin in your mouth or on your penis.

In these early stages syphilis is usually easy to treat.

Third stage (Tertiary syphilis)

Years later, when syphilis is not treated and stays in the body you can be affected by much more serious health problems later in life. These can include:

  • Heart problems
  • Eyesight problems
  • Problems with the nervous system

It is possible to get rid of syphilis during this stage but sometimes the serious problems do not go away.

Syphilis is usually spotted before this third stage and is very rare.

How is it transmitted?

Syphilis is most easily passed on through penetrative vaginal and anal sex without using a condom. It can also be passed on through oral sex, inserting fingers into the vagina or anus, and through fisting.

Do you think you may have syphilis?

If you think you may have syphilis you can go to your nearest GUM clinic. You can also visit your local or family GP.

By law the sexual health clinic cannot tell anyone about your visit, these rules do not apply to your GP, who can tell other people about your appointment.


The doctor will test you for syphilis with a simple blood test. If you have a sore on your body they will swab this with a cotton wool stick. They will also examine you. None of these tests will be painful but may be uncomfortable.


If you have syphilis it is usually easy to get rid of with a course of antibiotics, taken either as tablets or injections. You will have to take all the medication to kill the syphilis. Once you have taken the antibiotics you will need to return to the doctor to make sure the syphilis is gone.

No-one is immune to syphilis, if you’ve had it before you can get it again.

Protect yourself and others

You will need to tell anyone you have had sex with, as soon as possible that you have been diagnosed with syphilis so that they can get checked out too. It is important to get rid of syphilis as early as possible as it can lead to serious health problems if left untreated.

Using a condom can help protect against getting syphilis. Remember that using a condom will help protect you against getting or passing on other sexually transmitted infections. Dental dams can also be used during oral sex and rimming for safer sex. You can order free safer sex packs from Trade here.

Sexual health