DocQ: no one wants the gift of syphilis this Christmas

syphilis this christmas regular sexual health checks

DocQ writes about an ancient foe — the sneaky spiral bacterium that continues to infect humans after a history stretching back thousands of years. No one wants the gift of syphilis this Christmas so Dr Fiona Bisshop says – have regular sexual health checks. Early diagnosis means quick and effective treatment.

Long-time readers of the column know I love to bang on about syphilis. It’s a disease everyone likes to blame on everyone else.

The Italians, Germans and English once called it the French disease. The French, in turn, said it originated in Naples. The Russians blamed the Poles. The Poles pointed the finger at the Germans, and the Turks accused Christians of spreading it.

Like COVID, it matters less to your health where syphilis came from, than what we do to prevent or treat it.

Syphilis is very easily transmitted during sex. You can catch it from close contact such as kissing.

The classic first symptom is a chancre — an ulcer — usually on the genitals. However, sometimes the sneaky bacterium skips this step, leaving you unaware of its residence in your body.

Other symptoms include mouth ulcers, a spotty rash that resembles heat rash, a sore throat, sore glands, a flu-like illness, even a cough.

Weird symptoms

There are also some rather weird and unexpected symptoms. They include the loss of vision in one eye or a sudden loss of hearing. These symptoms occur because syphilis can invade the nervous system, leading to the serious condition known as neurosyphilis.

Syphilis can confuse you because early symptoms may go away without treatment. You then think you no longer have a problem.


Ultimately, if left untreated, syphilis enters a latent phase where you might not have any symptoms at all, but then goes on to do irreversible damage to the heart and nervous system, leading to dementia and death. Oh, and as an added horrid feature, it also causes malformations in the developing foetus if contracted during pregnancy.

Regular sexual health checks

Tests for syphilis include blood tests, swabs and rapid tests – sometimes in the very early stages of infection the blood tests and rapid tests will be negative – it can take a few weeks for the antibodies these tests detect to appear.

If you enjoy sex with others then I recommend a 3 monthly test for syphilis (you get this anyway with PrEP screening). At least then, the doctor can deal with anything you pick up.

The good news about syphilis is that it is easily treated with injectable penicillin. The trick is to get it diagnosed early! Book in today and look after yourself with regular sexual health checks.

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Dr Fiona Bisshop

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