Syphilis is on the rise, and it is the most prevalent it has been since World War II, according to a new report.
The sexually transmitted infection (STI) has been rare in the UK in recent decades, but it was reported the number of cases more than doubled between 2007 and 2017.
Now, the rate has risen still – with 7,541 new cases reported in 2018, a 5% increase since 2017 and a 165% rise in the past decade.
While many still think it’s a “disease of history”, syphilis is at its highest level since World War II (1939-1945), the report from the Terrence Higgins Trust reveals.
STI rates overall have also risen, according to the report, with 447,694 new diagnoses of STIs in 2018 – a 5% rise compared to 2017.
Other STIs on the rise in the past decade include gonorrhea (249%).
Chlamydia, meanwhile, has increased 6% since 2018.
Genital herpes remains at a stable level, with a 3% rise between 2017 and 2018, while rates of HIV and genital warts are falling – 6% and 3% respectively in the same time period.
What is syphilis?
“Syphilis is a bacterial infection that's usually spread through unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex, or sharing sex toys,” explains Dr Laura Joigneau Prieto online doctor at Zava UK.
According to Dr Lizzie Kershaw-Yates, GP and medical team member at The STI Clinic , the infection is passed from person to person through contact with a syphilis sore (ulcer).
“Depending where the ulcer is, the infection can be passed on during vaginal, anal or oral sex and by sharing toys with somebody who is infected.
“Anybody who is sexually active is potentially at risk,” she adds.
Dr Kershaw-Yates says it may also be possible to catch syphilis if you inject yourself with drugs and you share needles with somebody who is infected or through blood transfusions.
But it is worth noting that syphilis cannot be spread by using the same toilet, clothing, cutlery or bathroom as an infected person.
What are the symptoms of syphilis?
The symptoms at the first stage of the infection include a small painless sore called a 'chancre' found at the site of infection.
“It is more frequently found on the penis or the vagina or around the anus,” Dr Joigneau Prieto says. “It may appear on the fingers, mouth, lips or buttocks. Your glands in your neck, groin or armpits may also swell.”
These symptoms disappear within eight weeks even without treatment, and worryingly some people may not experience any symptoms at all or may not notice them.
“But this doesn't mean the infection has gone,” warns Dr Joigneau Prieto. “Without treatment it will develop into the secondary stage, known as secondary syphilis.”
According to Dr Kershaw-Yates syphilis is divided into stages (primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary) and there are different signs and symptoms associated with each stage.
How is it treated?
If you have syphilis, you will be treated with a short course of antibiotics. Treatment is essential because the infection doesn't go away on its own.
“Antibiotics are usually enough to treat the infection, but the type of antibiotic you will be prescribed will depend on how long you have had syphilis for,” Dr Joigneau Prieto explains.
“If you have had syphilis for less than two years, you will either be injected with penicillin or prescribed up to 14 days of antibiotic tablets if you are unable to take penicillin.
“For syphilis which has lasted for over two years, you will usually need three penicillin injections or a 28-day course of antibiotic tablets.”
According to Dr Kershaw-Yates it is important to avoid sex until the syphilis sores are completely healed, and a test confirms that the syphilis infection has gone.
“It is also important to tell your current sexual partner(s) so that they can also be tested and treated if necessary,” she adds.