Bacterial infections

Syphilis

What is it?

Syphilis is a much more complicated bacterial STI. It can be spread by intimate close body contact and during all forms of sexual intercourse. If left untreated, syphilis can have serious effects on our health and could eventually (many years from infection) lead to the breakdown of many of the major organs such as the heart, liver and brain and may eventually result in death.

Health effects

There are three stages to the development of Syphilis in the body.

Primary stage syphilis – one or more painless sores or ulcers appear (usually around the point of genital contact with the sores of an infected person). These could be external (on the vulva, penis, anus or mouth) or internal (in the vagina, rectum, tongue or throat). These sores are very infectious but usually disappear after a few weeks.

Secondary stage syphilis – the bacteria enters the bloodstream and over the next one to two years, infected people will have other symptoms:

  • a rash that is non irritating that can be anywhere on the body – but typically on the torso, hands and feet, . This rash will come and go and unless it appears in the mouth, is not infectious.
  • white patches in the mouth
  • mild flu-type symptoms
  • wart-like growths around the vulva and anus or mouth

Tertiary stage syphilis – after many years, the bacteria begins to affect all the major organs in the body and the central nervous system leading to brain damage, heart failure, liver failure and eventually death.

Testing and treatment

Syphilis is usually detected by having a blood test for the bacteria, though if in the early stages where sores or ulcers are present; these can be swabbed to detect the bacteria.

Treatment at any stage of this infection is by a course of antibiotics (normally penicillin based). These will be administered either by injection into the buttocks or orally depending on a sexual health clinic’s practices.