Genito-Urinary Medicine


Introduction to Syphilis

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum.

Written by Doctify Team 27/04/2020

What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It is also possible to catch syphilis if you are sharing needles with some with the condition. There are three stages of syphilis, primary, secondary and tertiary, each presents with different symptoms and it is the primary and secondary stage at which you are the most infectious to other people. Tertiary syphilis is uncommon in the UK. If the disease is caught early, it can usually be cured with antibiotics. If the disease is not treated, it can become dangerous and cause other serious health issues such as stroke, paralysis, blindness and even death.

What are the causes for Syphilis?

Syphilis is caused by having sexual intercourse with someone who has the infection. The bacterium enters the body during close contact, so can be spread through either vaginal, anal or oral sex. Pregnant women can also pass the infection on to their babies during pregnancy. In the first stage of the condition, the infection is localised to the area it was contracted, but if not treated it can spread throughout the body.

What are the symptoms of Syphilis?

In primary syphilis the most common symptom is a small painless sore or ulcer that is called a chancre. The sore will appear on the area of your body where you caught the infection, typically the vagina, penis or anus. You may also have swollen lymph glands in your neck, groin or armpit. The sore will disappear within 2-6 weeks and if not treated, the condition then moves into the second stage.

Symptoms of secondary syphilis include a non-itchy rash on the body, typically on the palms or sole of the feet, small wart-like growths on the vulva or anus, flu-like symptoms, weight loss, patchy hair loss and swollen glands. If the condition is still not treated, it moves into the tertiary stage- this can begin years or decades after the primary stage. This is where the infection has spread to other parts of the body and you may experience blindness, paralysis, heart disease, deafness, stroke and loss of co-ordination.

How is Syphilis treated?

If the condition is caught early, it can be easily treated with penicillin antibiotics. In the more advanced stages of the disease treatment is more difficult as you may have developed other medical conditions. For example, having syphilis puts you at a higher risk of HIV as the sores on the genitals make it easier for the HIV virus to enter the body.

Syphilis can be easily prevented by avoiding sexual contact with someone with the condition. To reduce your risk of this condition and other sexually transmitted diseases you should use male or female condoms, use dental dams during oral sex and avoid sharing sex toys. A specialist sexual health doctor will be able to give you further information on syphilis.

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Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum.

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Dr Wayne Cottrell GP
Sexual Health Genito-Urinary Medicine General Practice
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