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Syphilis is an STI which, when left untreated, can lead to serious illness. However, when detected in its early stages, it is fairly simple for doctors to treat with antibiotics.

  1. Around 3,000 reported cases in the UK every year
  2. It is thought that 80-90% of these will occur in men
  3. Treated with a course of antibiotics

Please note we do not provide syphilis treatment through our site. If you think you may have come into contact with this or any other STI, you should visit your GP or local GUM clinic as soon as possible.

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Syphilis is a bacterial infection, caused by a strain of bacteria called Treponema pallidum bacteria. Transmission is initiated via sexual contact: either through vaginal penetration, anal sex, or oral sex. Once a person is infected, it can take anything from one week to three months for the very first signs of the infection to materialise. As the early stages are so often only characterised by non-specific symptoms, it can be easy to carry or even pass on the infection without knowing that you have it.

There are three stages to the disease; primary, secondary and tertiary.

Primary symptoms can appear within two weeks or three months. A painless lump or sore, referred to as a ‘chancre’, appearing on the penis, vagina or anus, is the most typical symptom. This might be accompanied by swollen glands in various places around the body.

After the chancre has gone away, the secondary stage develops, and might be characterised by a rash, tiredness, headaches, weight loss, inconsistent hair loss or small growths developing on the skin. Following this, the infection moves into its ‘latent’ stage, where the condition may produce no visible symptoms but remain contagious.

The final stage, tertiary syphilis, can be very harmful to the body and cause permanent damage. This might be blindness, loss of hearing, a stroke, heart disease, or dementia. Although most cases are treated before they reach this stage, the illness may even lead to death.

Those people who are still experiencing the first and second stages of the illness can be treated with antibiotic medication after a positive diagnosis. However, the tertiary stage may require more intensive treatment, and a stay in a hospital.

Identifying symptoms and seeking treatment immediately is a priority when it comes to syphilis. When treated during the early stages, medications such as Erythromycin work by stunting the development of the offending bacteria. They do this by stopping the virus from generating a self-sustaining protein which it requires for its own growth. Unable to spread further, antibodies then set about killing the infection off. The condition may remain infectious for a time after treatment has finished, so it is important to get re-tested after the course has finished, and only have sex once all signs of the infection have gone.

Page last reviewed:  26/05/2017 | Next review due:  28/04/2018
Types of Treatment

Types of Treatment

Syphilis is a type of bacterial infection, making antibiotics the go-to treatment for the condition. For syphilis, a doctor may typically issue an antibiotic such as Erythromycin.

How do they work?

Depending on what they are being used to treat, the function of antibiotics can vary. In the cases of those used to treat syphilis, they most typically work by inhibiting the infection’s aptitude for growth. They do this by restricting the bacteria’s production of an essential self-sustaining nutrient. Once the bacteria is stopped from feeding itself and cannot grow, the immune system gets to work and fights it off.

What are the side effects?

Side effects can vary depending on which treatment you are using. Only a minor percentage of people using antibiotics may experience them. Nonetheless, it is important to acquaint yourself with the potential side effects a medication may cause so that you can act accordingly if you experience them. You can find the associated side effects by reading the patient information leaflet, or by asking your doctor.

Possible known side effects which may occur when using broad-spectrum antibiotics include flu-like symptoms, decreased liver function, indigestion and stomach pain.

Can I take them with other medications?

Antibiotics can interact with and affect the efficacy of other drugs, including contraceptive pills containing progesterone, oestrogen, or synthetic versions of either. So it is important to let your doctor know during consultation what medications you are currently taking, or have taken recently. This includes prescription medication, over-the-counter medicines and remedies.

Page last reviewed:  26/05/2017 | Next review due:  28/04/2018
Question and Answers

Should I take Erythromycin?

This will depend largely on whether you have any allergies or conditions which affect your capacity to use it.

Are there side effects?

Yes. All medicines carry a risk of potential side effects. These may only occur in a small number of cases, but it remains essential to be aware of the nature of these so that you can seek help in the event that they manifest. In those antibiotics used to treat syphilis, these may consist of, but are not limited to: headaches, stomach pain, indigestion and abnormal liver function.

Page last reviewed:  26/05/2017 | Next review due:  28/04/2018

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This content was reviewed by a clinician on

26 May 2017
dr daniel

Dr Daniel Atkinson

(GP Clinical Lead - GMC No. 4624794) 26 May 2017
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