What is it?
A thankfully uncommon but very unpleasant sexually transmitted disease caused by a bacterium.
The symptoms often follow four phases.
- In the first (primary) stage one or more painless sores usually appear on the throat, penis, testicles or around the anus. You'll probably have swollen glands. The infection can be spread by sexual contact at this stage. The sores clear up themselves in 2—6 weeks, but the infection does not.
- In the secondary stage (up to six months after the primary symptoms) a non-itchy rash may appear on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. The rash usually appears as brown areas that are about the size of a penny. Active bacteria are present in this rash and the infection may be spread by any contact, sexual or non-sexual.
- If untreated, the disease now enters a "latent" phase during which the symptoms settle and the disease is no longer contagious.
- During late (or tertiary) stage infection (often lasting many years) serious damage to your heart, brain and nervous system can occur. Left untreated, late-stage complications will develop in 40% of those infected.
- Although still relatively rare, the number of diagnoses has been rising since the mid-1980s. Rates are highest in 25—34 year-old men.
- There was a massive increase of 1484% in cases of syphilis in men between 1998 and 2003, mainly because of localised outbreaks in London and the north-west of England.
- Syphilis can be transmitted through oral sex.
An organism that is similar to a bacterium, and is called Treponema pallidum. Syphilis can be transmitted through oral sex as well as penetrative sex.
Practising safer sex and reducing the number of sexual partners will help reduce the risk of infection.
- Yes. Your best bet is to visit a specialist GUM clinic, which can provide a confidential service.
- Diagnosis is made from a blood sample and, if you have a blister, from a swab.
- In cases thought to be in the later stages you may have to undergo a lumbar puncture, which is a procedure to remove spinal fluid to check for nerve damage — this is painful and often causes a severe headache.
- Penicillin (Bicillin) for primary and secondary infection for 10—14 days, injected into the muscle. For those allergic to penicillin, doxycycline once daily for 14 days, or tetracycline or erythromycin four times a day for 14 days.
- For late-stage disease, the treatment course lasts up to 21 days.
- Don't have unprotected sex until you've finished your treatment and your partner has also been tested. This will give your body time to heal and prevent the risk of re-infection.
- A little salt-water solution will help the sores to heal.
- Keep the affected area clean and dry.
Syphilis can be easily and effectively treated. Left untreated, however, it is potentially a very serious condition.
Page created on January 16th, 2010
Page updated on January 16th, 2010