Syphilis

The condition used to be relatively common in the UK until the end of the Second World War. Then the widespread availability of antibiotics meant that condition became quite rare.

However, in recent years, the number of people with the condition has increased. There were 2,766 reported cases in the UK during 2006.

Catching Syphilis increases your chances of catching HIV. Also, HIV will alter the typical course of Syphilis, increasing the chances of it progressing to tertiary Syphilis.

Transmission

Syphilis used to be rarely seen by professionals working within sexual health clinics. However, since 1999, Manchester has seen a significant increase in the number of cases reported, especially in MSM.

Syphilis can be picked up through:

  • Having unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex
  • Through genital contact
  • Contact with syphilitic sores, rashes, lesions
  • Blood-to-blood contact

Symptoms

Syphilis is often known as the ‘great imitator’ due to its ability to produce symptoms that mimic a variety of other infections. The signs and symptoms of Syphilis can be difficult to recognise and some people may not even notice them. Syphilis can develop in three stages:

  1. Primary Syphilis - The symptoms for primary syphilis can take up to 12 weeks to develop. One or more painless, red sores (chancre) may appear on the vagina, cervix, cock, balls, mouth, throat or arse. These sores may take between two to six weeks to heal, and this stage may also be accompanied by swelling of the glands closest to the site of infection.
  2. Secondary Syphilis - The secondary phase can develop four to ten weeks after the appearance of the chancre. This stage has many symptoms, and therefore can be confused with other infections. The most frequently reported symptoms include: A whole-body rash (common on soles of feet and palms of hands), fever, headaches, patchy hair loss and swollen lymph nodes. These signs and symptoms will clear up with or without treatment. However, without treatment, the infection will develop into the tertiary stage.
  3. Tertiary Syphilis - When the symptoms of secondary Syphilis have subsided, the infection enters this stage. This means that although the person will have no symptoms, they are still infected. Left untreated, syphilis can cause serious damage to the heart, nervous system and brain. This internal damage may turn up many years later, and the time frame for this progression is very variable; varying from three to ten years.

Syphilitic ulcers can also facilitate the transmission of HIV infection, and therefore increase the likelihood of contracting the virus. This is because the ulcers provide a route for the infection to get into the blood system.

Research has also been carried out which reports that Syphilis infection can cause the viral load of people who are HIV positive to rise. Although syphilis is treatable, people living with HIV may experience more problems in curing a syphilis infection due having a weakened immune system. Therefore, treatment for Syphilis in people living with HIV may be longer compared with someone who is HIV negative.

Treatment

A simple blood test is also carried out to detect the presence of the infection. If sores are present, a swab is taken and examined.

Antibiotics are given to treat the infection for up to two weeks. A second blood test is then taken after the antibiotic course to check if the infection has cleared up fully.  It’s also important for your sexual partners to get checked too.

If you’re a bit embarrassed about doing this or are finding it difficult to get in touch with your partners, the clinic where you get tested can help. They can contact people on your behalf and let them know without giving your name.