Syphilis rates have risen by a staggering 148% in England over the past decade and are now at levels not seen since World War II.
Between 2016 and 2017 alone, cases of the sexually transmitted infection (STI) soared by 20% - from 5,955 to 7,137. Gonorrhoea cases are also at their highest level for decades. Dr Olwen Williams, president of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, said the rise in both types of infection is “a huge concern”.
If left untreated syphilis can prove life-altering, resulting in serious damage to the heart, brain and nervous system. In some cases it can prove fatal. Here we explain what the symptoms are and how to get tested.
Who is at risk?
The recent increase in syphilis follows a 10-year trend, with 78% of diagnoses in gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM).
Across all STIs, the highest rates of diagnoses continue to be seen in 16-24 year olds.
Symptoms of syphilis
Syphilis has three stages according to sexual health charity BPAS. The first stage often presents itself as a painless sore (or multiple sores) around the vagina or penis. These sores might appear in the mouth or around the anus.
The second stage of the infection may appear as a rash or flu-like symptoms. Rashes are generally quite blotchy and red, affecting the palms of the hands or soles of the feet, according to the NHS. You might also experience tiredness, headaches, joint pain, a high temperature and swollen glands.
Some people might also experience small skin growths (like genital warts) that develop on the vulva in women or around the anus in both men and women, and white patches in the mouth.
If left untreated the infection can progress to third stage syphilis causing serious damage to the heart, brain, other internal organs, bones, eyes and nervous system. This can be deadly.
If you think you’ve slept with someone who has syphilis or you have any of the symptoms above, it’s important to get tested as soon as possible as the STI won’t go away on its own. You can do this at your GP or local sexual health clinic.
Syphilis is usually diagnosed through a blood test and possibly an examination of the genital area. If you have sores a medical professional might take a sample of the fluids from them using a swab.
Like other STIs, treatment for first and second stage syphilis involves a course of antibiotics or a single antibiotic injection.
People should avoid penetrative or oral sex until at least two weeks after the treatment has finished and it’s important to bear in mind that you can catch syphilis more than once, even if you’ve been treated for it before.
How to protect against it
Public Health England (PHE) has urged people to increase condom use and encourage testing following changes in partners, in order to drive down the transmission of infections.