What is syphilis and how do you treat it?

What is syphilis?

Syphilis may sound like ancient history, but this lesser-known STI is going through a resurgence. With that in mind, let’s talk about the symptoms and treatment of syphilis.

Syphilis has different stages. Depending on which stage the infected person is in, this can influence how likely you are to catch it.

Open sores carry the highest risk of transmission during vaginal, anal or oral sex. However, it can also transfer through sharing sex toys with someone that’s infected.

It can also spread through sharing needles with a drug user and from mothers to their unborn children during pregnancy.

Avoiding syphilis

You can reduce your chances of getting syphilis by practising safe sex. Going for regular STI checks between new partners can also help to keep an eye on your health.

Using male condoms is a simple but effective way to reduce your risk of catching STIs. Female condoms and dental dams are also available.

It is safer to change condoms between activities, so if your blowjob is over, slip a fresh skin on before you go in! This helps with hygiene and lowers the risk of condoms splitting through over-use.

Naturally, not sharing sex toys and needles will help in avoiding syphilis and other STIs.

Syphilis symptoms – stage 1-2

Some people can be infected and not get any symptoms at all, but if you notice any of the following, it’s a good idea to get yourself checked out.

In the primary stage, you may experience:

  1. small, painless sores or ulcers appearing around your genitals or mouth. Sores can be both external and internal, so you can miss them.

These will heal within three to six weeks, but you can still spread the infection to others.

In the secondary stage, you may experience:

  1. a blotchy red rash anywhere on your body but often appearing on your hands or feet
  2. small skin growths (similar to genital warts) that develop around your genitals
  3. white patches in the mouth or a sore throat
  4. tiredness, headaches, joint pains, a high temperature or fever and swollen glands in your neck, groin or armpits
  5. patchy hair loss

These symptoms will go away even without treatment, but the disease will remain in your system and get worse. You or your partner can catch syphilis through contact with the sores or rash. It is contagious but treatable.

Symptoms – stage 3-4

The bacteria are still present during the latent stage (stage 3) but not showing symptoms, and you won’t be contagious. However, this phase can last for years and still affect your internal organs.

Some people may not experience the latent stage, however and could progress to the tertiary phase, which can cause serious health problems, including:

  1. numbness of sensation
  2. problems with muscle control
  3. vision problems (blindness)
  4. dementia and confusion (as in the case of Mad King George)

Get an STI test

If you think you may have syphilis or any STI, visiting your GP or local sexual health clinic is the first step.

It won’t go away without treatment, and although it’s more likely to be another more common STI, getting a test is best.

When you go to a clinic, the doctor will run a blood test and/or perform a swab test to collect a fluid sample from any open sores.

Treatment of syphilis

If you do have syphilis, you can treat it through antibiotics. This comes in two forms:

  1. You may have an injection into your butt of a single dose, but this can be changed to three injections at weekly intervals if you’ve had syphilis for a longer duration.
  2. You may take a single course of antibiotic tablets if the injection isn’t suitable for you. This usually lasts between 2-4 weeks, but it depends on how long you’ve had syphilis.

If you test positive and have a pregnant partner, she must receive treatment.

Being aware of the risks and avoiding them is the best way to stay safe from syphilis.

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