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What is Syphilis? 

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is usually caught by having sex with someone who is infected. Anyone who is sexually active can catch syphilis. 


How is syphilis passed on?

Syphilis is transferred from person to person by direct contract with a syphilitic sore (a small bump caused by the infection which is usually painless). Sores can occur on or around the external genitals, in the vagina, around the anus or in the rectum, or in or around the mouth. Transmission of syphilis can occur during vaginal, anal or oral sex.


How do I know if i have syphilis?

Sometimes people with syphilis will not have symptoms, or they may take a while to develop. Even when people do show symptoms, they are often mild and difficult to recognise so you may pass on the infection without knowing it. The symptoms also tend to change over time and may come and go.

The early symptoms (primary syphilis) can start to happen two to three weeks after infection but can occur later. These include

  • The main symptom is a small, painless sore or ulcer, the sore will typically occur on the penis, vagina, on or around the anus, in the mouth or on the lip, fingers or buttocks(bum).
  • The sores can occur on their own or in multiples.
  • Swollen glands in your neck, groin or armpits.

These symptoms can last about two to eight weeks if left untreated they can progress to the later stage (secondary syphilis):

  • A blotchy red rash that can appear anywhere on the body, but often develops on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
  • Small skin growth on the vulva in women or around the anus in both men and women
  • White patches in the mouth
  • Flu like symptoms
  • Swollen glands
  • Patchy hair loss

Without treatment, a syphilis infection can last for years or decades without symptoms. Eventually it can spread to parts of the body such as the brain or nerves and can cause serious and life threatening problems, this is known as tertiary syphilis. Problems include:

  • Meningitis
  • Strokes
  • Dementia symptoms
  • Loss of coordination
  • Numbness
  • Vision problems or blindness
  • Heart problems

Syphilis is still treatable at this stage but the problems caused can be permanent.


How can syphilis be treated?

A short course of antibiotics can cure syphilis, these are available on prescription so you need to be diagnosed with syphilis first.

If you have had syphilis for less than two years it can be treated with a shot of penicillin to your buttocks(bum) or a 14 day course of antibiotics if you can have penicillin.

If you have had syphilis for more than two years it can be treated with three penicillin injections at weekly intervals or a 28 day course of antibiotics if you can't have penicillin.

Tertiary syphilis which is affecting the nervous system or brain daily injections of penicillin in the buttocks (bum) or in a vein will be needed.

You must avoid sex or direct skin contact during treatment including oral, anal or vaginal sex due to the risk of reinfection.


Should I test for syphilis?

You should test for syphilis every 12 months as part of your routine annual sexual health screening.

If you have symptoms, have a partner who has been diagnosed or are worried you may have caught syphilis you should get tested. The test involves a physical examination, a blood test and a swab test. You should also get tested for other STIs as you can have multiple STIs at once.


Where can I test for syphilis?

You can get a test for syphilis at a range of sexual health clinics (sometimes called GUMs) across Greater Manchester.

Sexual Health testing services in Greater Manchester.

You can also test at your GP or community services like LGBT Foundation’s full screening clinic for people who identify as men who have sex with men. 



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Contact a sexual health adviser

The Passionate about Sexual Health (PaSH) Partnership) is a collaboration between BHA for Equality, George House Trust and the LGBT Foundation. The PaSH Partnership will deliver a comprehensive programme of interventions to meet the changing needs of people newly diagnosed with HIV, living longer term with HIV or at greatest risk of acquiring HIV.

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