Syphilis

What is it?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection which can have a range of symptoms. However, there may be no symptoms in the early stages of infection. If left untreated it can cause life-threatening health problems.

Syphilis is caused by bacteria known as Treponema pallidum.

How do I catch it?

Syphilis can be passed from one person to another during sex and by direct skin contact with someone who has syphilis sores or rash.

It's also possible for a pregnant woman to pass the infection to her unborn baby. This is known as congenital syphilis.

Symptoms

Syphilis can develop in three stages:

  • Primary syphilis
  • Secondary syphilis
  • Tertiary syphilis

Many people do not have any symptoms in the early stages. If you do get symptoms, you might notice the following.

Primary syphilis

  • One or more sores on the genital area, or in the mouth if you had oral sex. Often the sores are painless
  • The sores of first stage syphilis are very infectious and may take two to six weeks to heal

Secondary syphilis

If untreated, the second stage usually occurs some weeks later. The symptoms include:

  • a painless rash that is not normally itchy. It can spread all over the body and is often seen on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet
  • flat, warty-looking growths on the vulva in women and around the anus in both men and women (often mistaken for genital warts)
  • a flu-like illness, tiredness and loss of appetite, with swollen glands (this can last for weeks or months)
  • white patches on the tongue or roof of the mouth
  • patchy hair loss

Tertiary syphilis

When syphilis remains untreated it sometimes goes into another phase known as tertiary syphilis after many years. This is when the syphilis starts to cause very serious damage to the heart, brain, eyes and nervous system. At this stage syphilis can be life-threatening.

Testing

Testing for syphilis can be done by blood test, and the result is available within two weeks.

If you have sores or an ulcer, a swab can also be tested.

Your sexual partner(s) will also need to be tested for syphilis.

If you're aged 16 or over and living in Birmingham or Solihull, you can request a free sexually transmitted infection (STI) self-sampling kit. Just follow the instructions in the kit to take your own samples, and return to us for testing, all for free.

Request an STI self-sampling kit

Treatment

Syphilis can be cured by a course of penicillin injections, or by taking antibiotic tablets or capsules.

All Umbrella clinics provide treatment for sexually transmitted infections. To find clinics, and to see which services they offer, please see the service locator.

Find clinics and pharmacies

Worried about syphilis?

How to avoid STIs Get a free STI test by post

See the FPA website for a range of downloadable leaflets on contraception and sexually transmitted infections.

View FPA leaflets

The British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) website also features a range of downloadable leaflets on STIs.

View BASHH leaflets