Syphilis is a bacteria which can be passed from one person to another during sex and skin to skin contact with someone who has syphilis sores or rash.

Once you have the infection it can remain in your body and be passed on before symptoms are noticeable or after they have disappeared.

The infection can spread if you have vaginal, anal, oral sex or share sex toys. It is also possible for a pregnant woman to pass the infection to her unborn baby.

Syphilis can develop in three stages:

  • The first stage: called primary syphilis.
  • The second stage: called secondary syphilis.
  • The third or latent stage: called tertiary syphilis.

Signs and symptoms

These are the same in both men and women. If you do get symptoms you might notice the following:

First stage – One or more sore, usually painless, will appear where the bacteria entered the body. On average this will be three to four weeks after coming into contact with the infection but could be longer. In women they appear mainly on the vulva, clitoris, cervix, around the opening of the urethra, around the anus and mouth.

In men they appear mainly around the opening to the urethra, on the penis and foreskin, around the anus and mouth. The sores of first stage syphilis are very infectious and may take 2-6 weeks to heal by which time the bacteria will have spread to other parts of the body.

Second stage – If left untreated this stage usually occurs some weeks after the appearance of the sores.

Symptoms include:

  • A painless rash, normally not itchy, spreading all over the body or in patches, often including the palms of the hands and soles of the feet
  • Flat, warty-like growths on the vulva in women and around the anus in both men and women
  • A flu-like illness, tiredness and loss of appetite with swollen glands (this can last for weeks or months)
  • White patches on the tongue or the roof of the mouth.
  • Patchy hair loss.

The second stage of syphilis is very infectious can last several weeks or months.

Third stage/Latent syphilis – When the infection remains untreated it is called latent syphilis and can still be infectious. During this stage the person infected may have no further symptoms. A latent period with no symptoms or obvious signs can last for the rest of someone’s life.

After many years untreated syphilis may start to cause very serious damage to the heart, brain, eyes, other internal organs, bones and nervous system. At this stage syphilis could be fatal.

Any concerns?

If you have any concerns please contact your local GUM clinic, see map of services.

Page last updated:29 October 2014