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Sexual health tests

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Adeel Arshad

Authored on 24 January 2024 by Adeel Arshad,

Reviewed 24 January 2024 by Dr Ruch Karunadasa.

What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease which if left untreated can result in serious and possibly life threatening problems.

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

Symptoms of syphilis are often mild in nature and difficult to notice. Symptoms can change over time and can be intermittent. As a result, they can often be missed.

Symptoms can include -

  • Small sores around the penis, vagina or anus. There might only be one sore visible and they are normally painless.
  • Sores in other areas e.g. hands, mouth, lips or on the bottom.
  • White or grey wart like growths, commonly on the penis, vagina or around the anus.
  • Rash on the hands and soles of the feet which normally isn't itchy. The rash can spread all over the body.
  • White patches inside the mouth.
  • Flu like symptoms e.g. a high temperature.
  • Swollen glands.
  • Patchy hair loss - head, beard and eyebrows.

Symptoms can take 3 weeks post infection to appear. The symptoms can disappear entirely after a short period of time, but if not treated the infection will still be present in the body. This means you can still pass the infection to others and are at risk of developing more serious complications as time progresses.

Is syphilis serious?

If untreated, syphilis can cause serious and potentially life-threatening problems. These can include -

  • Brain issues e.g. seizures, personality changes, dementia and memory problems.
  • Nerve problems e.g. shooting pains, pins & needles, gradual damage and pain in the joints.
  • Heart problems e.g. angina, aortic aneurysm and heart failure.
  • Problems with the skin, bones, testicles and any organ.

Problems can appear many years after first being infected.

What does the test for syphilis involve?

If presenting with symptoms of syphlis, the healthcare professional e.g. the doctor, will check the penis, vagina and/or anus for sores. If detected, then fluid samples will be collected from the sores using swabs. The rest of the body will then also be checked for signs of syphilis such as rashes and wart like growths.

A blood sample may also be taken.

What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease which if left untreated can result in serious and possibly life threatening problems.

What are the treatment options?

Syphilis is treated with the use of antibiotics. Treatment length will depend on the length of infection i.e. the stage of syphilis.

Treatment can sometimes cause flu like symptoms to develop for up to 24 hours. Following the start of treatment, patients will need to be re-tested for the infection at 6 weeks and then again at 12 weeks.

Syphilis in pregnancy

Syphilis can be passed to the baby during pregnancy (congenital syphilis). Having syphilis during pregnancy can increase the risk of miscarriage, premature birth and stillbirth.

Patients can continue to breastfeed babies because the infection cannot be passed through breast milk. Precautions should be taken to make sure the baby does not come into contact with any syphilis sores.

Useful Information

NHS web information on syphilis

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