What is it?
Syphilis is a bacterial infection in your blood caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum
How do I get Syphilis?
Giving or receiving anal or oral sex can transmit syphilis. It can also be passed on through direct contact with syphilis sores or lesions known as a chancre.
What symptoms or signs might I notice?
It is common for the symptoms of syphilis to go unnoticed, however when they do appear they usually occur in two early stages which are very infectious and a later stage which is not infectious, but still causes problems. Although you may show no visible signs of infection, in the earlier stages you are still able to pass on syphilis.
Stage 1: (known as primary syphilis)
Typically, you will notice a red sore (chancre) which is usually but not always painless. Chancres usually appear on your penis, lips, mouth and throat or on the outside of the anus. Visible sores scab over before healing. Usually, sores appear at the site at which the infection enters your body. Sores can also be present inside the anus and rectum but you wouldn’t normally be aware of these , unless there was a split in the skin at the edge of the anus or there was some bleeding. This stage may show up ten days to six weeks after infection but you may not notice it. If you leave it untreated, your sore will disappear after a few weeks, but the infection may then progress unnoticed or become visible again in the form of the second stage
Stage 2: (known as secondary syphilis)
You might notice a skin rash appear on the palms of your chest, face and arms . It can also affect the palms of your hands, soles of your feet or other parts of your body. In addition to rashes, second stage symptoms can include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle and joint aches, and unexplained episodes of tiredness. Importantly eyesight and hearing can be affected. These symptoms can be intermittent and prolonged over many months during which it is possible to pass on syphilis to others. In all stages of early infectious syphilis even though you may show no visible signs of infection, you are still able to pass on syphilis to others through close and sexual contact.
Stage 3: (known as tertiary or late syphilis)
If left untreated syphilis often remains in your body and can do serious damage including to your brain, spine, eyes, ears, heart, liver, kidneys, bones, skin and joints by damaging the blood vessels for those organs. Sometimes, this damage can be life threatening. During this stage you will not be infectious to others but your own health may be significantly harmed.
How will I be tested for Syphilis?
Diagnosis is routinely through a blood test. If you have a sore (chancre) then the clinician seeing you may also take a swab from this area. Syphilis will be offered to you when you have a sexual health check up. If you're HIV positive, it is recommended to get tested for syphilis every 3 months when getting your regular blood tests to monitor your HIV.
How will I be treated for Syphilis?
Syphilis can be treated with an injectable antibiotic. It can be treated at all stages with antibiotics, though if it has progressed to Tertiary Syphilis and this has caused other health issues, these may not be able to be reversed. Penicillin is the antibiotic of choice but alternative antibiotics are also available if you’re allergic to penicillin.
How can I avoid getting Syphilis?
Using condoms can reduce the risk of transmission through anal sex; however there is still a high risk of getting Syphilis through oral sex and contact with syphilis sores and rashes.
What if I’m HIV-positive?
Syphilis can be more common in HIV-positive men who have sex with men. There can be significant differences in how syphilis disease progresses if your HIV is “detectable” or “undetectable”. If you are “detectable” there is a greater chance that you will develop signs and symptoms affecting the nervous system in the early stages, compared to men who are HIV negative. Both HIV and syphilis together may also lead to a more rapid onset of HIV illnesses. It can decrease your CD4 count (therefore causing damage to your immune system) as well as increase your viral load. This is really important if your CD4 count is already low. If you are HIV-positive and have a “detectable” viral load, Syphilis can increase the viral load in your semen. This means that it is easier to pass on HIV while you have Syphilis.
Where can I get help?
If you think you might have Syphilis, get a check up at Steve Retson Project or Sandyford sexual health services. Click on the Services link for check up options.
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