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Syphilis is a bacterial infection
The bacteria that cause syphilis are called Treponema pallidum. They can enter your body if you have close contact with an infected sore, normally during penetrative or oral sex or by sharing sex toys with someone who is infected. Syphilis cannot be spread by using the same toilet, clothing, cutlery or bathroom as an infected person, as the bacteria cannot survive for long outside the human body.
It may also be possible to catch syphilis if you are an injecting drug user and you share a needle with somebody who is infected.
Three stages of disease
The symptoms of syphilis develop in three stages.
Stage 1 (primary syphilis) –
Symptoms of syphilis begin with a painless but highly infectious sore on the genitals or sometimes around the mouth. If somebody else comes into close contact with the sore, typically during sexual contact, they can also become infected. The sore lasts two to six weeks before disappearing.
Stage 2 (secondary syphilis) –
Secondary symptoms, such as a skin rash and sore throat, then develop. These symptoms may disappear within a few weeks, after which you experience a latent (hidden) phase with no symptoms, which can last for years. After this, syphilis can progress to its third, most dangerous stage.
Stage 3 (tertiary syphilis) –
Around a third of people who are not treated for syphilis will develop tertiary syphilis. At this stage, it can cause serious damage to the body.
The primary and secondary stages are when you are most infectious to other people. In the latent phase (and usually around two years after becoming infected), syphilis cannot be passed on to others.
Tertiary syphilis is rare in the UK.
How common is it?
The number of diagnoses of syphilis has risen substantially in the past decade in the UK. There have been several local outbreaks across England and Scotland, the most recent being in Dundee in 2013.
Rates are highest among men who have sex with men.
However, syphilis is still one of the less common sexually transmitted infections in the UK.
If diagnosed early, syphilis can be easily treated with antibiotics, usually penicillin injections.
However, if it is not treated, syphilis can progress to a more dangerous form of the disease and cause serious conditions such as stroke, paralysis, blindness or even death.
It is estimated that people with syphilis are three to five times more likely to catch HIV. This is because the genital sores caused by syphilis can bleed easily, making it easier for the HIV virus to enter the blood during sexual activity.
Infection with both HIV and syphilis can be serious because syphilis can progress much more rapidly than normal.
more information is available at www.nhs.uk