Syphilis is very easy to catch and pass on. It makes some people very ill at first but others don't notice early symptoms.
It's treatable at any stage but causes serious health problems if left untreated.
Cases of syphilis have been on the rise again in Scotland for several years.
What is syphilis and how is it caught?
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is usually passed on through having sex with someone who is infected.
It can be passed on through:
- vaginal, anal or oral sex without a condom or dam
- mutual masturbation
- sharing sex toys without a condom or dam
It can also be passed from a mother to her child before birth.
Left untreated, it stays in the body after any initial problems have died down.
Many years later (5-25 years) it can damage many areas of the body.
It can cause blindness, mental illness, heart disease, disfiguring skin lesions, bone problems and shooting pains.
How can I avoid catching syphilis?
If you're going to have sex, always use a condom (or a dam) and have safer sex.
The risks can be lowered if you reduce the number of partners you have sex with.
Take extra care when having sex in places where syphilis is more common (e.g. overseas or in saunas where men have sex with men).
If you've been feeling unwell and think you might be at risk (e.g. you're a man who has sex with men, you've had sex overseas or had many partners), tell your doctor. Be sure to ask about syphilis testing.
Many people will have no obvious symptoms for many years until serious damage to the body starts to show up.
Syphilis infection often follows several stages. The symptoms can easily be missed or confused with other health problems - even by health professionals.
A few days after sex you may notice a small, hard lump or swelling on the penis, the opening of the vagina, anus or mouth.
The lump can be painless and heal up or quite sore. Often, it's confused with genital herpes.
Days or weeks later you may get a rash on the palms of your hands, mouth ulcers or wart-like growths around your anus.
You might have a temperature and feel unwell. In rare cases, your hearing and vision may be affected.
If you have any of these symptoms or think you or your partner may be at risk, it's important you both get tested.
Syphilis testing is usually done by giving a blood sample and results should be available in about a week.
This can be done by your GP or practice nurse or at your local sexual health service.
Early syphilis infections are treated using antibiotic pills taken over 10-14 days.
Late stage syphilis is treated with antibiotic injections.
Treatment is followed by more blood tests to make sure the infection is gone and for up to a year afterwards.
Treatment is effective at any stage but any damage done to organs may not be reversible.
For this reason, it's important that people at risk of syphilis infection are tested and begin treatment as soon as possible.