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Syphilis is on the rise - banana logo

What is syphilis?

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Syphilis is a bacterial infection that can spread easily through anal, vaginal and oral sex, and through sharing of sex toys. It can also pass from mother to baby.

Left untreated, it can seriously damage your heart, brain and bones, and can cause nerve problems. It may even lead to death. Syphilis is easy to treat and cure. 

Find a test near you

Who is most at risk?

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Most cases are seen in men who have sex with men (including those who identify as heterosexual) but anyone who is sexually active can get syphilis.

What are the symptoms?

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Ten days to three months after infection, a painless sore (known as a ‘chancre’) may appear at the site of infection – usually on the penis, vagina, in the mouth, or around the rectum.

A few weeks after the sore disappears you may get a rash on your body, often on the palms of your hands or soles of your feet. You might feel ill, with a fever or headache. You might notice growths near the anus or vagina. Both the growths and rash are infectious.

Even if symptoms go away, without treatment someone can pass on syphilis for up to two years.

You can have syphilis without knowing, so regular check-ups are a good idea, especially if you’ve had sex without a condom or are planning to stop using condoms.

Protection against syphilis

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  • Using a condom cuts the risk of infection. 
  • Avoid sharing sex toys – if you do, wash them and cover them with a condom.
  • Other types of contraception, like the contraceptive pill, offer no protection from syphilis or other STIs.

Testing for syphilis

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All STI tests, including syphilis, are free on the NHS.

A test can involve:

  • a blood test,
  • a swab test, where a swab (small cotton bud) is used to take a sample of fluid from any sores,
  • a physical examination, where a doctor or nurse will also ask to check your genitals or other parts of your body for sores.

Testing is free and confidential.

Where to test for syphilis

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For Southend-On Sea, please contact the Southend Sexual Health Service Intelligence Centre by telephone: 0300 303 2693 for information and advice.

If you don’t live in one of the areas above, search NHS Choices for your local service.

  • This campaign is a collaboration between local authorities in the East of England, Public Health England and Terrence Higgins Trust.