Syphilis is an STI (sexually transmitted infection) caused by bacteria and can affect the brain, heart, and nervous system if left untreated.
Caused by the Treponema pallidum bacteria, it can be spread through unprotected anal, vaginal, and oral sex as well as through sharing sex toys. It could initially result in genital sores that might lead to further, more serious symptoms unless you receive treatment.
We will be noting the symptoms to look out for, the treatments available for syphilis and answering questions to help put your mind at ease.
Syphilis Treatment for Men
It can be easy to cure syphilis when caught in its early stages by using penicillin or a course of tablets. It is also possible to be treated with an antibiotic treatment such as doxycycline, azithromycin, or ceftriaxone if you are allergic to penicillin.
There may be some side effects after your treatment. Around 40% of people may suffer flu-like symptoms, including high temperature, headaches, muscle, and joint pain.
The side effects should not last more than 24 hours and can usually be treated with paracetamol. If the symptoms persist, you should seek further advice from your doctor.
Your doctor should also monitor for any allergic reaction to penicillin after your treatment.
Syphilis Treatment for Women
The treatment of syphilis in women is much the same as it is for men, and catching it early on will make it much easier. You will either be treated with penicillin or an alternative antibiotic treatment if you are allergic.
It is vital to check for syphilis prior to or during pregnancy, as it can pose dangers to the baby, such as miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, fetal growth restriction, and placenta and umbilical cord issues. All pregnant mothers in the UK are offered a blood test to check.
When the infection is passed on to the child, this is called congenital syphilis and can be life-threatening for the infant. Studies show that pregnant women that test positive will have around a 70% chance of an adverse outcome for the pregnancy without treatment.
Treating syphilis during pregnancy is straightforward using penicillin and will not harm the baby. It is recommended to treat it as soon as possible, ideally before 26 weeks of pregnancy.
There are many other symptoms the newborn child might suffer from, including;
- Issues gaining weight
- Saddle nose
Older infants or children with congenital syphilis can suffer bone pain, vision or hearing loss, and joint swelling, among other problems.
Treatment of congenital syphilis consists of receiving penicillin through an IV (intravenous line). Congenital syphilis can be completely cured in babies. However, it is possible health conditions caused by the infection can develop.
Is Syphilis Curable?
The good news is that it can be cured if treated quickly. However, any damage already caused by the infection is not reversible.
The most important factor in curing the infection is time. The sooner you start your treatment, the better the result will be.
Speak to your doctor if you have any symptoms so they can carry out a physical examination and relevant tests to determine if you will need to receive treatment.
How Long does Treatment for Syphilis Take?
If you have had syphilis for less than 2 years, you will usually be treated with a penicillin injection or a 10-14 day antibiotic tablet course.
For people that have had it for over 2 years, the infection will be treated with 3 injections at weekly intervals or a 28-day course of antibiotic tablets.
In the event of more serious cases that may affect the brain, you will be injected with penicillin treatment into your buttocks or intravenously for the course of 2 weeks. As with other treatments, if you are allergic to penicillin, you will be treated with a course of antibiotic tablets, in this case for 28 days.
Secondary Syphilis Treatment
If you have noticed a blotch rash, patch hair loss, or growths like genital warts, you may have secondary stage syphilis.
Secondary stage syphilis can be treated by an injection of penicillin or following a course of antibiotic tablets prescribed by your doctor if you have a penicillin allergy.
Tertiary Syphilis Treatments
Tertiary syphilis is the last and most serious stage of the infection. It can cause mental illness, blindness, deafness, heart disease, or even death. Treatment, before you reach this stage, is recommended. Treatments are available if you do reach this stage though.
At this stage, you would require daily penicillin injections into the buttocks or intravenously to manage the symptoms.
What are the symptoms of syphilis?
There are different stages of syphilis that each exhibit different symptoms. We will take a look at all of them, so you know what to look out for. The stages and their symptoms are:
Primary syphilis symptoms
This is the first stage and seeking medical advice if you notice any syphilis symptoms will give you the best chance of treating the infection.
The first symptoms are usually noticeable around 3 to 4 weeks after contracting the bacteria and begin with a chancre. A chancre is a small, round, painless sore.
Though it is painless, a chancre is extremely infectious. The chancre will usually be found around the bacteria that initially entered the body, such as the genitals, mouth, or rectum.
It can take anywhere up to 90 days for the chance to appear and usually take between 2-6 weeks to clear.
Symptoms of secondary syphilis
During this stage, you may experience discomfort as skin rashes, and sore throats can develop. Rashes will usually occur on the soles of your feet or palms, but they can appear anywhere on the body. These will usually appear a few weeks after the sore clears.
Other symptoms include;
- Occasional headaches
- Aching joints
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Weight loss
- Hair loss
Failure to treat secondary stage syphilis will result in these symptoms going away. However, you will still have syphilis which can develop and worsen.
Symptoms of latent syphilis
If secondary syphilis is not treated and the symptoms clear, you may move onto this stage. It is also sometimes known as the hidden stage, as there are no symptoms and the bacteria remains in your body, sometimes for years.
Symptoms of tertiary syphilis
Finally, the last stage of the infection is known as tertiary syphilis and can take decades to develop in the body if left untreated.
Symptoms of tertiary syphilis can be debilitating and sometimes result in death. The symptoms of tertiary syphilis include:
- Mental illness
- Memory loss
- Breakdown of soft tissue and bone
- Neurological disorders, for example, stroke or meningitis
- Heart disease
- Neurosyphilis, a brain or spinal cord infection
Neurosyphilis is the condition when the bacteria spreads to the nervous system. It is more common for this to develop after latent or tertiary syphilis, but it can develop after primary syphilis.
Symptoms for Neurosyphilis include:
- An altered mental status or dementia
- Extremity numbness
- Abnormal gait
- An inability to concentrate
- Failing vision
Though tertiary syphilis is treatable, treatments must be started as soon as possible. Any damage caused by the syphilis bacteria can't be reversed. Late-stage syphilis is the most damaging, and preventing the infection from getting to this stage is key to making a recovery.
How is syphilis transmitted?
Syphilis transmission can be through close and direct contact with a chancre (a sore) present during the primary stage of syphilis or by being in close and direct contact with a rash during secondary syphilis.
This is usually during sexual contact or being in contact with sex toys used by someone with syphilis. Syphilis can be passed on during unprotected sex, anal sex, and oral sex.
People most at risk of this will be sexually active and have sex with multiple sexual partners.
How can I prevent syphilis?
Syphilis infection can be prevented if you avoid sexual contact should you suspect a potential sexual partner has it. Practising safe sexual activity with sexual partner/s is advised. Avoiding casual, unprotected sex and sharing sex toys is advisable for all aspects of sexual health, not just the prevention of syphilis.
If you take a syphilis test and it comes back positive, you must contact recent sexual partners, no matter how awkward a conversation it may be so they can also be tested.
Is syphilis the most dangerous STI?
Syphilis is extremely dangerous. Left untreated, it can be fatal or leave you with mental illness, dementia or other long term issues.
STIs can all have serious consequences, and peoples bodies may react differently to each infection. STIs such as gonorrhoea or chlamydia can lead to infertility, for example.
Other examples of the consequences of contracting an STI include the potential of developing cervical cancer from HPV (Human Papillomavirus). This infection causes genital warts that, if left untreated, can go on to develop into cervical cancer.
The risk of contracting HIV is also increased by leaving an STI untreated. These are just some of the outcomes that result from untreated STIs.
If you have any concerns, it is advisable to speak to a professional that can provide medical advice. By taking a test for syphilis, you will either get peace of mind from a negative test result or be able to start your treatment as soon as possible.
How regularly should I have check-ups?
Opinions differ on how often a physical examination should be carried out, but it should be at least once a year. If you regularly have different sexual partners, this should be upped to around every 3 to 6 months, even if you feel completely fine and healthy.
We advise being tested for an STI to remain as safe as possible if any of the following scenarios suit your circumstances;
- If you have had sex without using protection
- Before starting a physical relationship with a new sex partner
- If you have multiple sex partners
- If a sexual partner has received a diagnosis of syphilis (or any other STI)
- If you have engaged in anal sex
- If you have engaged in oral sex
- If you have found the symptoms of syphilis being present
If you have even the smallest concern, you should speak to a healthcare professional and get tested and treated as soon as possible to prevent any potential STI from developing in your system. It is also possible to use a home syphilis test kit if you are unsure.
Disease control and prevention are as important as treatment for STIs. The more people understand the importance of sexual health, the more chance there will be to avoid potentially life-threatening infections.