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Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection.


It is caused by bacteria called Treponema pallidum.


There are 4 stages of syphilis and each stage has different symptoms.


Primary syphilis

Primary syphilis causes sores or ulcers (chancres) around the body (e.g. genital area, anus, mouth)


Secondary syphilis 

Secondary syphilis causes a painless rash, warts in the genital area, tiredness, fever, headache, joint and muscle ache, swollen glands, loss of appetite, hair loss, white patches in the mouth.

These symptoms occur around 4-10 weeks after ulcers appear.


Latent (inactive) syphilis

The latent stage occurs after the symptoms of syphilis have cleared but the infection remains untreated.


Tertiary syphilis

Tertiary syphilis occurs when syphilis remains untreated.

The symptoms can occur many years after the initial infection.

This includes neurosyphilis (loss of mental and physical function due to infection of the brain and spinal cord), aneurysms (weakening of the artery wall) and gummas (non-cancerous tumours caused by inflammation).


If you think you may have syphilis, you should see your doctor or attend a sexual health clinic.

The doctor will ask you about your sexual history and symptoms. They will also examine the genital area and may perform other physical examinations to look for any signs of early or late disease.

If the doctor suspects you may have syphilis then they will perform some tests such as swabs of the ulcers or a blood test.


If you are diagnosed with syphilis or there is high suspicion that you may have syphilis, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics (e.g. benzathine benzylpenicillin).

Your doctor will also advise you to avoid sexual intercourse until you have been treated and encourage you to use condoms when having sex to prevent future infections.


You should also contact any recent sexual partners as they may have syphilis. This includes any individual with whom you have had sexual intercourse within 6 months.


If syphilis is left untreated, a woman may be at risk of the following complications:

  • Meningitis

  • Organ damage

  • Increased risk of contracting other STIs including HIV

  • Complications of pregnancy (e.g. miscarriage, premature birth, stillbirth)

  • Syphilis infection in babies can lead to developmental delays and death if untreated.

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