About Syphilis

Syphilis is on the rise. Easy to get. Easy to cure.

What is syphilis?

It is a bacterial infection that spreads easily through anal, vaginal and oral sex. Pregnant women infected with syphilis can also pass the infection to their unborn baby.

Is syphilis a serious issue in Wales?

Although numbers are small there is a continuing increase in cases of syphilis in recent years with specific outbreaks occurring in social groups.

Although most cases of syphilis are treatable with antibiotics, people can be infected and not show any symptoms for years; treatment is more effective the earlier syphilis is diagnosed and so more awareness is needed around the infection.

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

Undiagnosed syphilis is a lifetime infection and if ignored, has very serious outcomes.

Who has syphilis in Wales?

Cases of syphilis have been reported among heterosexuals and men who have sex with men (MSM). Although syphilis is more common in men who have sex with men (MSM) and bisexual men, there are now more people being infected outside of these groups.

How can I tell if someone has syphilis?

Someone can have syphilis and not know it. While some people develop visible symptoms of syphilis infection, others don’t.

Depending on where you are having sex, you might not be able to see if your sex partner has symptoms of syphilis. Symptoms or not, if you have syphilis you can still get very sick and give syphilis to others.

The average time between being infected with syphilis and the start of the first symptom is 21 days, but can range from 10 to 90 days.

The first symptom is a small, painless sore called a chancre. The chancre (it is usually just one) will normally appear on the area where the infection entered the body, so usually the vagina, penis or anus. The sore may go away by itself after 3-6 weeks; however you are still infected with syphilis. It’s very easy to pass on syphilis to someone at this stage of infection.

Symptoms can progress to include a non-itchy rash on the palms or soles of the feet, small skin growths, flu-like symptoms, swollen glands, weight loss and patchy hair loss. These symptoms may also disappear without treatment, but you can still pass on syphilis to sexual partners. Infection with syphilis follows a progression of three stages that can last for weeks, months, or even years.

How can you get syphilis?

Syphilis bacteria are spread during unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sex through contact with the sores of the first stage or the rash of the second stage. It can also be passed on through sharing sex toys and from a mother to her baby. Unless they are treated, someone can pass on syphilis for up to two years once it becomes latent (between the second and third stages).

How do I protect myself from syphilis?

Always use a condom. You can get free condoms from the sexual health clinic. Condoms are the best way to protect yourself and others from syphilis and other STIs, including HIV. If you haven’t liked using condoms in the past try different ones, there are many different varieties now designed to increase pleasure and sensation. Get regularly tested for syphilis if you have more than one sexual partner. Talk to your doctor about your sex life and how often you should be tested for syphilis (and other STIs).

If you’ve had syphilis once, you can get it again - and again. That’s why it’s important to get tested regularly, especially if you have a lot of casual sex.

If I think I’ve put myself at risk of syphilis what should I do?

You should go and get advice and a test at your local sexual health clinic.

Where can I go for advice and support about if I am worried about syphilis?

Whether you need support before or after having a syphilis test, it is available: http://www.tht.org.uk/sexual-health

What are the benefits of getting tested for syphilis?

  • Syphilis is curable;
  • You can catch syphilis more than once, even if you've been treated for it before;
  • You can avoid passing it on to others by using a condom for sex.

Does syphilis increase the risk of getting or passing on HIV?

Yes. If you are HIV-negative, syphilis causes sores (chancres) and rashes, so it's easier to get infected with HIV during sexual activity. Your risk for HIV infection is increased from three to four times if your sexual partner is infected with syphilis and is also HIV-positive.

If you’re HIV-positive and you have syphilis, this can increase your ‘viral load’ (a measure of HIV in your blood). Also, the HIV tends to concentrate in syphilis chancres, increasing the risk of HIV transmission to others.

Testing and self-testing

The best place to get tested for syphilis is in any of the integrated sexual health services. Information on where your local integrated sexual health services are can be found at NHS Direct Wales. In addition, Syphilis self-testing kits are available online and on the high street.

Before using a self-test kit, make sure it has a CE quality assurance mark. This means that, provided you use it correctly, the kit will work properly and is safe. No self-test kit is 100% reliable, and a CE mark is still no guarantee that a particular home test is suitable for you. If you do a self-test for syphilis and the result is positive, it's important that you contact a health professional as soon as possible and get the emotional and medical support you need.

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