Syphilis: Signs, symptoms and treatment
What is it, how do you get it and how can you get rid of it?
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that enters your body through broken skin in the areas surrounding the genitals, such as the vagina, penis or anus (bum).
It can be spread through contact with syphilis sores and passed on while kissing or having unprotected sex.
In Ireland, the highest rates of syphilis are diagnosed in men having sex with men (MSM), and they are encouraged to have regular 3-6 monthly screens.
Symptoms of Syphilis
Syphilis is very easy to pick up but also very easy to treat, the problem is the majority of those who have syphilis are unaware that they have it as many do not have symptoms.
Half of those infected might never show symptoms but it's really important to watch out for them as the infection develops in three stages.
There's no difference in symptoms for men and women.
Stage One: Primary Infection
Syphilis initially takes anywhere between 9 and 90 days to develop. This is known as the incubation period, when the infection makes itself at home in your body.
It will usually appear around three weeks after exposure as a painless ulcer (similar to a cold sore) in the genital, anal or mouth area.
Stage Two: Secondary Infection
You move into the second stage of the infection after an incubation period of between 6 weeks and 6 months after exposure.
At this time, approximately 40% of infected people will develop a red spotty rash, typically on the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet, but it may also appear elsewhere on your body. Remember, this rash is usually not itchy.
Other symptoms include:
- swollen glands
- hair loss (temporary)
- a sore throat
- muscle aches
- weight loss
Stage Three: Tertiary Syphilis
This final stage can kick in months or years after your body has been exposed to the infection.
It's very rare but, if you don't treat it, it can cause serious damage to the nervous system and other internal organs and occasionally prove fatal.
Syphilis in babies
Yes, syphilis can be passed on from the pregnant person to the baby. If someone has the infection while pregnant they run the risk of having a stillbirth. Syphilis in babies is rare in Ireland as all pregnant people are routinely tested for syphilis at their antenatal visit.
Babies born to pregnant people with syphilis may also have congenital defects such as deafness, neurological impairment and bone deformities. If the pregnant person is not treated immediately, an infected baby could be born without symptoms and develop them within a few weeks.
The symptoms can prove far more serious for babies, have a big effect on their development, give them seizures and even lead to their death.
How to treat Syphilis
The first and most important step is to visit your doctor or a screening clinic to have it diagnosed.
This can be done in two ways:
- By examining a sample of one of the infectious sores under a microscope
- through a simple blood test.
Pregnant people in Ireland are offered a blood test for syphilis in early pregnancy due to the risk the infection can pose to the baby.
Firstly, you'll be offered antibiotics. This is the only treatment for syphilis, and it's very effective. It's incredibly important that you do NOT have sexual intercourse for at least two weeks after treatment and abstain from sexual contact with new partners until all of the sores have completely healed.
Tell your sexual partners that you have the infection because they'll need to get themselves checked out and may require treatment too.
You'll also need to have follow-up blood tests to make sure that the infection is responding to treatment.
Syphilis is very treatable if you catch it early. It's just extremely important to treat all sexual partners of diagnosed patients.
How to prevent Syphilis
- Always use a condom during vaginal, anal and oral sex performed on a penis
- During oral-vaginal or oral-anal (rimming) sex, always use a dental dam
Remember: The age of sexual consent in Ireland is 17. If you're over 16, you can consent to medical treatment including any treatment or tests needed.