Syphilis is a bacterial infection.

How is it passed on?

Syphilis can be passed on through oral, vaginal or anal sex. It can also be passed from a pregnant person to their child at birth.


Syphilis has three stages: primary, secondary and latent (also known as tertiary). Symptoms depend on the stage of the infection.

Primary syphilis causes an ulcer at the site of infection and swelling of lymph glands. This occurs within the first three months of infection. The ulcer is highly infectious but is painless and usually disappears without treatment, or may not be noticed at all.

Secondary syphilis can cause skin problems (usually a rash) and swelling of lymph glands anywhere in the body. This usually occurs within the first 6 months of infection. The rash will get better without treatment.

Latent/tertiary syphilis is what happens more than two years after infection. Many people experience serious consequences at this stage, such as issues with the bones, skin, heart or central nervous system. At this point, syphilis can be life threatening.

The STI test kit

Syphilis is tested using a blood sample. If you are getting a test in clinic, this is usually from a nurse who will take a blood sample with a needle.

If you're doing one of our postal STI tests, you will need to collect a blood sample by pricking your finger using the lancet supplied. You can watch this blood test instruction video and see the instruction leaflet that comes in the kit.


Syphilis may take twelve weeks to show up in a test from the time of infection. If you are in any doubt about window periods, you should do a test now, and another test at a later date.

If you have had syphilis in the past, it's also worth knowing that some tests (such as rapid tests or postal tests), might always come back positive for syphilis, even if you've been treated. If you have had a previous infection, we can run extra tests to see if it's a recent or old infection that's been treated.


Syphilis is treated with antibiotic injections or tablets. The length of treatment depends on the stage of infection.

As soon as your test results become available, we will send you a text message to let you know how to get treatment. If you have an infection, an NHS clinician may then call you to discuss your treatment.

Telling your partner

If you have syphilis, you should tell all of your current partners and anyone else that you have had sex with in the last three months. They may have syphilis without knowing it, so it is important for them to be tested.

How to avoid syphilis

  • Condoms are quite effective at preventing a syphilis infection, but you can get syphilis from oral sex without a condom, or skin contact from areas not covered by a condom.
  • You can get free condoms at sexual health clinics.
  • Regular testing each time you change sexual partner helps reduce the spread of STIs.


What are the most common symptoms?

Syphilis develops in three stages:

  • Primary syphilis
  • Secondary syphilis
  • Tertiary syphilis

You may not have any symptoms in the early stages of syphilis. However if you do get symptoms you may see:

Primary syphilis

  • One or more ulcers on the genital area, or in the mouth (if contracted through oral sex). The sores are often painless.
  • These sores are very infectious and can take 2-6 weeks to heal.

Secondary syphilis

If untreated syphilis progresses to the second stage, you may see:

  • A painless non-itchy rash which can spread all over the body, but is most often seem on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.
  • Flu like illness, tiredness, loss of appetite, swollen glands.

Tertiary syphilis

This occurs when you have had syphilis for many years or when syphilis remains untreated (which is very rare):

  • This can cause serious damage to the heart, brain, eyes and nervous system.
  • At this stage syphilis can be life threatening.

Can my partner tell if I have syphilis?

They may be able to tell if you have symptoms of infection, but many people don't have symptoms, meaning their partners wont be able to tell. However, you should tell your partner if you have syphilis as they will need testing and may need treatment.

Does syphilis affect fertility ?

No, syphilis does not affect fertility.

If I’ve received treatment for syphilis before, will I always test positive for it?

Some of the tests (such as some postal or rapid tests) for syphilis will remain positive but others will not. You should inform the person testing you that you have had syphilis in the past.