Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is usually caught by having sex with someone who is infected.

  • You can get syphilis if you have close contact with an infected sore, normally during unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex, or by sharing sex toys with someone who is infected.
  • Sexual penetration or ejaculation does not need to take place for syphilis to spread.
  • It may be possible to catch syphilis if you are an injecting drug user and you share a needle with somebody who is infected.
  • Syphilis cannot be spread by using the same toilet, clothing, cutlery or bathroom as an infected person, as the bacteria cannot survive for long outside the human body.


The symptoms of syphilis are the same for men and women, and can be difficult to recognise. Symptoms are often mild.

Primary syphilis

  • The initial symptoms of syphilis can appear any time from 10 days to three months after you have been exposed to the infection.
  • The most common symptom is the appearance of a small, painless sore or ulcer. The sore will appear on the part of your body where the infection was transmitted, typically the penis, vagina, or around the anus.
  • The sore can also appear in the mouth or on the lips, tonsils, fingers or buttocks.
  • The sore is painless and may be overlooked, so the condition can be spread without you realising you have an infection.

The sore will then disappear within two to six weeks. If the condition is not treated, syphilis will move into its second stage.

Secondary syphilis

The symptoms of secondary syphilis will begin a few weeks after the disappearance of the sore.

Symptoms can include:

  • a non-itchy skin rash appearing anywhere on the body, but commonly on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet
  • small skin growths, often mistaken for genital warts – on women these appear on the vulva and for both men and women they appear around the anus
  • flu-like symptoms – such as tiredness, headaches, joint pains and fever
  • swollen lymph glands
  • weight loss
  • patchy hair loss

Getting tested

A doctor or nurse will examine your genitals.

  • For men, this involves looking at the penis, foreskin and urethra (the hole at the end of the penis where urine comes out).
  • For women, it involves an internal examination of the vagina.
  • Both men and women may also have their anus examined.
  • They may also check your body for any rashes or growths and examine your mouth and throat.
  • After the examination, you will have a blood test for syphilis.

If sores are present, a swab (similar to a cotton bud) will be used to take a small sample of fluid from the sore. This is then either looked at under a microscope in the clinic or sent to a laboratory for examination.

How is syphilis treated?

Primary and secondary syphilis can be successfully treated with a single dose of penicillin, which is given as an injection into your buttock.

Protecting yourself and others

  • The only guaranteed way to prevent a syphilis infection is to avoid sexual contact or to only have sexual contact with a faithful partner who has been tested and is not infected.
  • Condoms can reduce your risk of catching syphilis, but cannot prevent it altogether. You can still catch syphilis if your mouth makes contact with a sore on an infected person's anus or vagina.
  • It is important to not only use a condom during vaginal, oral and anal sex, but also consider using a dental dam (a square of soft plastic).
  • Avoid sharing sex toys.
  • If you are an injecting drug user, do not use other people's needles.

Do you have symptoms or want to be tested?

If you have symptoms you should get yourself tested to avoid infection developing and from transferring it to someone else.

Call 0300 008 5522 to book an appointment at one of our clinics.

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