Syphilis is a Bacterial infection which is commonly passed on through sexual contact with someone who has it. It has some symptoms but these can be hard to notice, and often go away for periods of time.

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Who is Affected by Syphilis?

Anyone can be infected with syphilis, regardless of their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. some groups of people are more at risk because syphilis is more common within their group, or because of an existing health condition. Gay, bi and other men who have sex with men are more likely to be infected with Syphilis. and it is easier for people living with HIV to become infected.

How is it Transmitted?

Syphilis can be transmitted by direct skin-to-skin contact with a syphilitic sore, also known as a chancre (pronounced: SHANG-kur), so it is possible to get syphilis through vaginal, anal or oral sex, and also through fingering, rimming and fisting.

Condoms, dental dams and fisting and fingering gloves can reduce risk, but if the chancre is not covered, then it is still possible for syphilis to be passed on.

What are the Symptoms?

The early symptoms, also known as 'primary syphilis', start to happen two to three weeks after infection, but can occur later. The main symptom is a small, painless sore called a chancre which commonly appear in these places:

  • On the penis or vagina
  • On or around the anus and buttocks (bum)
  • In or around the mouth and lips
  • On fingers

People typically only get one chancre, which can be sometimes be hard to spot but sometimes there will be more than one. These will naturally heal in time, butthis does not mean that the infection has gone.

Some people will also get swollen glands, which you can feel in your neck, armpit and/or groin (crotch).

These symptoms can last about two to eight weeks, and if it is not treated, it can progress to 'secondary syphilis'. The symptoms associated with secondary syphilis include:

  • A blotchy red rash which typically develops on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, but can appear anywhere
  • Tiredness, headaches and flu-like symptoms
  • Swollen glands, which you can feel in in your neck, armpit and/or groin(crotch)
  • White patches in the mouth

These symptoms typically will pass after a few weeks, though they may come and go over the following months before they disappear. This does not mean that you are cured of syphilis, you have just entered a phase called 'latent syphilis'.

Latent syphilis can last for years, but ultimately will lead to 'tertiary syphilis'. This can have serious complications and can cause lasting damage. Symptoms include:

  • Meningitis
  • Heart Problems
  • Strokes
  • Dementia-like symptoms
  • Vision problems and potential blindness

Syphilis is treatable at every stage, though the effects of tertiary syphilis can be permanent, so it is better to test regularly and get treatment if you do get a positive result for syphilis.

Testing and Treatment

It is possible to get tested for syphilis at a Sexual Health (GUM) clinic or if you identify as a gay, bi or any other man who has sex with men, then you can get tested at LGBT Foundation through our full sexual health screening clinic in partnership with The Northern. For more information on when and where to get tested, visit lgbt.foundation/testing.

Syphilis can take 3 to 6 weeks from infection to show in tests, so if you think you have had a risk incident more recently than three weeks, it will not show up on the test results.

If you do get a positive result, syphilis is really easy to treat and cure. In its earlier stage it will involve an injection of penicillin in the bum (buttocks) or a 14 day course of antibiotics if you are allergic to penicillin. The treatment requires more time or more injections if you have had syphilis for some time.

If you identify as a gay, bi or any other man who has sex with men, then you can get tested at LGBT Foundation through our full sexual health screening clinic in partnership with The Northern. For more information on when and where to get tested, visit lgbt.foundation/testing