It can turn you blind, make your pubes fall out and cause mental illness. Syphilis may be associated with sailors from way back when, but this old-school nasty is making a comeback. Read on to learn about its symptoms and the treatments used to get rid of syphilis.

Two young people are standing in a school corridor asking "is syphilis curable?"

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a highly contagious STI that’s caused by a type of bacteria known as a Spirochete. It’s passed on through skin-to skin contact with open sores and through unprotected vaginal, anal and oral sex. It can also be transmitted from mother to child before or during birth.

Also known as the pox, it moves through the body in four different stages: primary, secondary, latent and tertiary.

How do I know I’ve got syphilis?

Following the initial infection, it can take anywhere from 10 days to three months before you’ll see the first symptoms, though the average is three weeks.

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

There are several stages of syphilis infection. The primary symptom is a sore on the vagina, penis, anus, lips or mouth. It doesn’t hurt and there’s usually only one, but there can be more. It can last up to six weeks, but because it’s painless it often goes unnoticed.

Syphilis tongue

While it may be easy to ignore a random sore, it won’t be so easy to ignore the secondary stage symptoms, which include a reddish/brown rash that can appear anywhere on the body, white patches on the tongue, sometimes called syphilis tongue, and warty-looking growths on the genitals. You may also experience tiredness, swollen lymph nodes, a sore throat, hair loss, headaches with a fever, and weight loss.

These symptoms can come and go over roughly three months, and will go eventually but won’t cure the syphilis.

The latent stage of syphilis

If you still haven’t had treatment the bacteria moves into the latent stage and starts affecting the bone marrow, lymph glands, vital organs and the central nervous system. This can last anything from a month to a patient’s entire lifetime. This may sound like the stuff of horror movies, but weirdly there are no obvious symptoms, and around 50-70% of patients live out the rest of their lives without the disease ever progressing to the tertiary stage (the scary but rare stage that causes serious damage to the body and brain).

While all of this sounds mind-blowingly grim, as with most STIs the earlier you catch it the easier it will be to treat.

Is syphilis curable?

Yes, syphilis is curable with antibiotics. It’s important to start treatment as soon as possible though, because the treatment won’t reverse any damage the disease has already done to your body.

Treatment for syphilis

If you find a sore or rash or think you’ve put yourself at risk, see your doctor (GP), or go to your nearest GUM clinic. Caught in the primary or secondary stage, a scraping will be taken from the sores and a blood test may be needed for diagnosis.

But treatment is simple: primary and secondary syphilis can be blasted with a high dose injection of penicillin, which will kill the bacteria within 24 hours.

Left until the latent stage, however, and treatment will require three injections given at weekly intervals. Antibiotics will be prescribed if you’re allergic to penicillin.

Treatment of tertiary syphilis requires longer courses of antibiotics and may need to be administered intravenously. However, while it may stop the spread of infection, it cannot repair any damage that has already been caused.

Can you get rid of syphilis if you ignore it?

No, syphilis won’t go away on its own and you shouldn’t ignore it. Syphilis is a dangerous STI that will happily stick around causing havoc with both your skin and your internal organs unless you treat it and the longer you leave, it the worse it gets.

An untreated pregnant woman is likely to pass the infection on to her unborn child, which can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth, or the baby being born with syphilis.

Syphilis also increases the risk of HIV infection because HIV can enter the body more easily when there’s a sore present.

How do I protect myself from contracting syphilis?

Using a condom or dental dam during vaginal, anal and oral sex reduces the risk but won’t eliminate it, as it’s also possible to contract from skin-to-skin contact. It’s also best to avoid sharing sex toys.

The best way to protect yourself from syphilis (in fact any type of STI) is to practice safe sex and ask your partners about their sexual history – the more partners they’ve had, the higher the risk of infection.

How soon can I have sex again?

Dubbed ‘the great imitator’, the early symptoms of syphilis can easily pass off as something else; so don’t be duped into thinking you’re rid of it. It’s crucial to finish any treatment and get the all clear from your GP before you have sex again.

As there’s also a high risk of passing it on it’s essential to inform partners so they can get themselves checked out.

Worried about STIs? Get tested! Search for a sexual health clinic near you. You can also ask questions about STIs on our Discussion Boards or check out all of the safe sex resources we have here.

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STIs| syphilis

By Nicola Scott

Updated on 13-Jan-2023