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How common is syphilis?

Since 1999 there has been a big rise in syphilis infections in the UK. Gay and bisexual men made up over two-thirds of all syphilis diagnoses in 2016. But many men might remain untreated because they don’t know they have it.

What causes syphilis?

Syphilis is caused by bacteria that live in warm, moist parts of the body such as inside the mouth, arse and cock. It’s easy to pick up and pass on.

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

The disease follows three stages, each with its own symptoms. But symptoms of syphilis don’t always show. Many men diagnosed with syphilis never realised they had it until they got tested.

First stage (Primary syphilis)

Two to four weeks after getting infected a painless red sore (known as a chancre, pronounced “shanker”) can appear either on your cock or in your mouth, throat or arse. It will heal and go away.

The glands nearest to the sore (in the neck or groin) may swell up.

Second stage (Secondary syphilis)

Weeks or a few months later a rash can appear on your body, often on your palms of your hands or soles of your feet. You might also get a fever or headaches or feel ill.

You may get warty growths around your arse, or ulcers or grey patches of skin in your mouth or on your cock.

Third stage (Tertiary syphilis)

Years later syphilis can cause serious damage to your heart, brain and nervous system. However, syphilis is usually spotted before then and so this third stage is very rare.

How is syphilis passed on?

You can get syphilis by coming into contact with the sores of the first stage or skin rash of the second stage.

Unless it’s treated, syphilis can be passed on for up to two years through unprotected:

  • fucking or being fucked
  • sucking or being sucked
  • fingering
  • fisting.

How is syphilis prevented?

Using a condom for fucking and sucking prevents contact with the infectious sores or skin rashes/patches on someone’s cock or in their arse or mouth. But this doesn’t guarantee protection as syphilis bacteria will be in any sore or rash not covered by the condom.

Touching the rash or sores should be avoided. Latex gloves for fisting will stop contact with sores in someone’s arse.

A blood test will tell you if you’ve picked up syphilis so that you can then make sure you don’t give it to others. Men with HIV who have sex with a lot of men are advised to get tested every three to six months.

No-one’s immune to syphilis. If you have had it before, you can get it again.

How is syphilis treated?

Clinics usually check everyone’s blood for syphilis. If there’s a sore, the fluid in it is tested.

Antibiotics are given as a single injection or up to two weeks of injections or tablets.

If you have HIV and are not undetectable, treatment might last longer than that given to men who don’t have HIV. Once treated, a blood test checks that the syphilis has been cured.

Last review: 09/11/2018
Next review: 09/11/2021