Syphilis is a bacterial infection.

How is it passed on?

Syphilis can be passed on through oral, vaginal or anal sex. It can also be passed from mother to child at birth.


Syphilis has three stages; primary, secondary and latent. Symptoms depend on the stage of the infection.

Primary syphilis causes an ulcer at the site of infection and swelling of lymph glands. This occurs within the first 3 months of infection. The ulcer is highly infectious but it is painless and usually disappears without treatment, or may not be noticed at all.

Secondary syphilis can cause skin problems (usually a rash) and swelling of lymph glands anywhere in the body. This usually occurs within the first 6 months of infection. The rash will get better without treatment.

Latent syphilis is what happens more than 2 years after infection. Many people experience serious consequences at this stage, when syphilis can affect bones, skin, heart or central nervous system and may be life threatening.

Long term effects

The effects of latent syphilis on the bones, skin, heart and central nervous system may be serious.

The STI test kit

The test for syphilis is a blood sample.

If you are getting a test in clinic, this is usually from a nurse who will take a blood sample with a needle.

If you're doing one of our postal STI tests, the syphilis test is also done via a finger prick. You can watch the blood test instruction video and follow this link to see the instruction leaflet that comes in the kit.


Syphilis may take 12 weeks to show up in a test from the time of infection. If you are in any doubt about when to test, you should do a test now, and another test in 12 weeks time.

If you have had syphilis in the past, it's also worth knowing that some tests (such as rapid tests or postal tests), might always come back positive for syphilis, even if you've been treated. If you have had a previous infection, we can run extra tests to see if it's a recent or old infection that's been treated.


Syphilis is treated effectively by antibiotic injections or tablets. The length of treatment depends on the stage of infection.

As soon as your test results become available, we will send you a text message to let you know how to get treatment. If you have an infection, an NHS clinician may then call you to discuss your treatment.

Telling your partner

If you have syphilis, you should tell all of your current partners and anyone else that you have had sex with in the last 3 months. They may have syphilis without knowing it, so it is important for them to be tested.

How to avoid syphilis

Condoms are quite effective at preventing a syphilis infection, but you can get syphilis from oral sex without a condom, or skin contact from areas not covered by a condom.

You can get free condoms at sexual health clinics.

Regular testing each time you change sexual partner helps reduce the spread of STIs.


What are the most common symptoms?

Syphilis has 3 stages:

  • Primary syphilis
  • Secondary syphilis
  • Latent and tertiary syphilis

You may not have any symptoms of syphilis. However if you do get symptoms you may see:

Primary syphilis

  • One or more ulcers on the genital area, or in the mouth (if contracted through oral sex) or any exposed areas of skin (around the bottom or the nipple). The sores are commonly painless.
  • These sores are very infectious and can take 2-6 weeks to heal.

Secondary syphilis

If untreated, syphilis progresses to the second stage:

  • Painless non-itchy rash which can spread all over the body, but is most often seen on the palms of the hand and soles of the feet.
  • Flu like illness, fatigue, loss of appetite, swollen glands.

Latent and tertiary syphilis

This occurs when you have had syphilis for many years or when syphilis remains untreated (which is very rare):

  • Can cause serious damage to the heart, brain, eyes and nervous system.
  • At this stage syphilis can be life threatening.

Does syphilis affect fertility ?

No, syphilis does not affect fertility in men or women.

Can my partner(s) tell if I have syphilis?

Your partner may be able to tell if you have symptoms but not if you do not. However, you should tell your partner(s) if you have syphilis as it is important they get tested and get treated if required. They may also be the source of the infection but be unaware.

If I’ve received treatment for syphilis before, will I always test positive for it?

Some of the tests (such as some postal or rapid tests) for syphilis will remain positive but others will not. You should inform the person taking the test that you have had syphilis in the past as a different test would be used to check for re-infection.

To make an appointment or for further advice, please call:

0300 303 1948

Phoneline open 08:15-16:45 Monday-Friday

(closed 12:30-13:30 for lunch)