The number of syphilis cases in the UK has reached the highest level since 1949; newly published figures from Public Health England (PHE) have shown. According to these statistics, there were 5,920 diagnosed cases of syphilis in 2016, 12% more than in 2015 and almost 50% more than the 3,001 confirmed cases in 2012. The fact that syphilis diagnoses have doubled in the last five years is believed to be a result of a rise in unsafe sex as public fears about HIV have decreased. The majority of syphilis instances occur in gay or bisexual men.
Although syphilis is not as common as some sexually transmitted infections, it is a serious health condition which can lead to major lifelong problems when left untreated. These latest statistics show a dangerous surge in the disease which could be prevented by more people knowing the facts about this condition and opting for syphilis checks.
The sexually transmitted infection syphilis is caused by a bacteria called Treponema Pallidum. This bacterium is very easily passed between people during sexual contact, which can lead to the fast spread of this STI. It is important to note that although the Public Health England figures show that syphilis is most prevalent in men who have sex with men, anyone who is sexually active – whether they are male or female- can contract the condition.
Syphilis is passed from one person to another through direct sexual contact with someone who has the sores or rashes which are symptomatic of syphilis. The symptoms can remain mild or even unnoticeable for quite some time and it can be passed on before symptoms have manifested themselves, which is why syphilis checks are so important for anyone who has had unprotected sex.
Syphilis can be prevented by using condoms and/or dental dams during every sexual encounter. This recent rise in syphilis cases can also be slowed down by more people getting syphilis checks so that they can be diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible.
Signs and Symptoms
Men and women bother experience the same signs and symptoms of syphilis. The infection develops in the following stages:
- Primary syphilis
- Secondary syphilis
- Latent syphilis
- Tertiary syphilis
Not everyone with syphilis will experience symptoms, but those that do may notice the following during the primary stages of syphilis; painless sores (called chancres) on and around the external genitals, around the anus or on the mouth. Chancres usually begin to appear around two to three weeks after a person has come into contact with the syphilis infection.
In the later stages of syphilis, symptoms may include any or all of the following:
- Blotchy red rash on the palms of the hand or soles of the feet
- Small skin growths on the anus (and vulva for women)
- White patches on the mouth
- Flu-like symptoms, including extreme tiredness, headaches, joint pains and high temperatures
- Swollen glands
- Patches of hair loss
For some people, the outward symptoms of syphilis will pass after a few weeks. For others, they will come and go over the course of several months. It is important to remember that even if symptoms appear to have passed or even if they have never shown themselves, you can still be infected with syphilis, which can last for years and lead to very serious health conditions if left untreated.
How do Doctors Check for Syphilis?
Getting tested for a STI for the first time can be a daunting experience.
Here is what to expect when you go to your GP or sexual health clinic for a syphilis check:
Initially, you will be asked to give a blood sample. The nurse or doctor examining you will then do a genital examination. This includes an internal vaginal examination for women and an analysis of the urethral opening for men.
Both men and women will also have an anal examination which may be both internal and external. If sores or warts are found during a syphilis check, the doctor or nurse will use a swab to collect samples of discharge. Although this may be uncomfortable, it should be painless and will only last for a few moments.
No STI test can be declared to be 100% accurate every time, but it is highly likely that the infection will be detected by a standard syphilis check.
Syphilis Checks – Where To Get Tested
The best place to get a syphilis check is your nearest genitourinary medicine clinic– most commonly known as a GUM or sexual health clinic. These centres are staffed by expert healthcare professionals who are fully trained to deal with cases of sexually transmitted infection. Staff at GUM clinics will probably have easier access to syphilis testing resources than your local GP surgery.
If you are based in East Berkshire, here are some of your GUM clinic and sexual health centre options:
The Garden Clinic in Slough provides free, confidential sexual health testing and treatment to people of all ages in the East Berkshire area.
SpeakEasy is based at Upton Hospital in Slough, and caters exclusively to people aged 18 and under. Young people can go to SpeakEasy for a range of services including contraception, pregnancy testing, as well as testing and treatment for syphilis.
bShaW Integrated Sexual Health Service is based at Burnham Health Centre and is run by the Terrence Higgins Trust in partnership with the Buckinghamshire Healthcare Trust. This clinic provides a number of services for people of all ages including syphilis checks.
Alternatively, if you prefer to speak to a healthcare professional who knows you better, you can go to your GP- although they may refer you to a GUM clinic for checks. More information on sexual health concerns and where to go in East Berkshire is available on our website.