Syphilis is a bacterial infection that in the early stages causes a painless, but highly infectious, sore on your genitals or around the mouth. The sore can last up to six weeks before disappearing.

Symptoms of Syphilis

During the primary stage of infection, you may not necessarily have any symptoms. Some people have none at all.

You may get small, painless sores or ulcers that usually appear on the penis, vagina, or around the anus. These can also occur in other places such as the mouth. You may get a blotchy red rash that often affects the palms of the hands or soles of the feet

Some people experience small skin growths (similar to genital warts) that may develop on the vulva in women or around the anus in both men and women.

Secondary symptoms such as a rash, flu-like illness or patchy hair loss may then develop. These may disappear within a few weeks, after which you'll have a symptom-free phase.

The late or tertiary stage of syphilis usually occurs after many years, and can cause serious conditions such as heart problems, paralysis and blindness.

Causes of Syphilis

Syphilis is mainly spread through close contact with an infected sore.

This usually happens during vaginal, anal or oral sex, or by sharing sex toys with someone who's infected. Anyone who's sexually active is potentially at risk.

Pregnant women with syphilis can also pass the infection to their unborn baby. Read more about Syphilis in pregnancy below.

It may be possible to catch syphilis if you're an injecting drug user and you share needles with somebody who's infected, or through blood transfusions (this is very rare in the UK as all blood donations are tested for syphilis).

Syphilis can't be spread by using the same toilet, clothing, cutlery or bathroom as an infected person.

Testing for Syphilis

The symptoms of syphilis can be difficult to recognise. A simple blood test can usually be used to diagnose syphilis at any stage.

Treatment for Syphilis

The condition can be treated with antibiotics, usually penicillin injections. When syphilis is treated properly, the later stages can be prevented.

Preventing Syphilis

Using the male condom or Femidom (the female condom) reduces the risk, but only if the condom covers the sores or rash. Avoid touching the sores or the rash.