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Syphilis is an infection that can spread without either partner knowing. The first signs are often painless sores or rashes followed by flu-like symptoms. Left untreated, it can lead to heart disease or brain damage.

Signs and symptoms:

Syphilis can develop in stages:

Primary stage syphilis: 

  • Sores can develop where bacteria entered the body. On average the sores will appear 1-3 weeks after coming into contact with syphilis. They are very infectious and may take 2-6 weeks to heal, by which time the bacteria will have developed into second stage syphilis. 

Second stage syphilis:

  • A painless rash can develop, this isn't normally itchy and is often seen on the palms of hands or soles of feet.
  • Flat, warty growths on genitals, often mistaken for genital warts.
  • Flu-like illness, tiredness and loss of appetite. 
  • White patches on roof of mouth or tongue.
  • Patchy hair loss.

Latent stage syphilis: 

  • When syphilis remains untreated, without any signs or symptoms, it is known as latent stage syphilis.
Third stage syphilis:
  • Untreated syphilis may cause serious damage to the heart, brain, bones and nervous system after many years. 

How do you get it?

  • Unprotected (without a condom) oral, vaginal or anal sex.
  • Skin to skin contact with any sores or rashes.
  • From a mother to unborn child.

Testing and treatment

The doctor or nurse will ask to take a blood sample. They will do a genital examination, including an internal examination for women. They will use a swab (like a small cotton-bud) to take a sample from any sores.

Treatment for syphilis is often given as a single injection or course of penicillin injections, or in some cases antibiotic tablets or capsules.

Long-term effects

Left untreated syphilis can cause serious damage to the heart, brain, eyes and other internal organs. In pregnancy syphilis can cause miscarriage or stillbirth, and can be passed from mother to unborn child in the womb.