Syphilis is a bacterial infection.
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.
The effects of latent syphilis on the bones, skin, heart and central nervous system may be serious.
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.
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.
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.
Syphilis can develop in 3 stages:
You may not have any symptoms in the early stages of syphilis. However if you do get symptoms you may see:
If untreated syphilis progresses to the second stage:
This occurs when you have had syphilis for many years or when syphilis remains untreated (which is very rare):
No, syphilis does not affect fertility in men or women.
Your partner will be able to tell if you have symptoms but not if you do not. However, you should tell your partner if you have syphilis as it is important they get tested and get treatment if required.
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.