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25th Aug 2021

There’s a national syphilis outbreak happening at the moment, here’s everything you need to know

Brought to you by the HSE

The HSE has declared a national syphilis outbreak, affecting men and women in Ireland.

Cases of syphilis have been increasing in many areas of the country, with  the majority of cases notified in Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow (79%), followed by Cork and Kerry (8%) and Limerick, Clare and North Tipperary (3.5%).

The majority of recent syphilis cases have been reported in men, but there’s an increasing number of notifications in women too, showing it’s never been more important to look after your sexual health.

Syphilis, if diagnosed early, is entirely treatable, but there are some serious health issues that can arise if it’s left untreated.

That’s why we’re breaking down the need-to-know facts about syphilis. From symptoms to treatments and preventative measures, here’s what you need to know…

For more information on syphilis, you can visit

What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) which can cause serious health problems for both men and women if left untreated. It is caused by a type of bacteria called Treponema pallidum.

There are a number of ways someone can contract syphilis including:

  • Unprotected oral, vaginal and anal sex
  • Skin-to-skin contact with a syphilis sore
  • Transmission from mother to child during pregnancy ( also known as congenital syphilis)
  • Through a blood transfusion, although this is very unlikely in Ireland as all blood donors are tested

The best way to protect yourself from getting syphilis is to use a condom for vaginal, anal or oral sex.


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What are the symptoms?

There are three different stages of syphilis infection. The symptoms of syphilis may depend on the stage of the infection.

During the primary stage of syphilis, a small sore or ulcer (called a chancre) appears on the part of your body where the infection was transmitted. This is usually the penis, anus, rectum, vagina, tongue or lips. The sore can appear anywhere from 10 days to 3 months after you’ve been exposed to syphilis.

The symptoms of secondary syphilis begin a few weeks after the disappearance of the sore. Symptoms include a non-itchy skin rash appearing anywhere on the body but commonly on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. Other symptoms of this stage include tiredness, headaches, swollen lymph glands and eye problems like pain or blurring of vision.

If syphilis is untreated it may progress to a third stage, called tertiary syphilis. How tertiary syphilis presents itself will depend on what part of the body the infection spreads to. For example, it may affect the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, bones, skin or blood vessels.

At this stage, untreated syphilis can be serious enough to cause death. This is why it’s so important to get tested and treated if you are at risk. Plus, getting tested and treated helps to protect others from syphilis too.


How can I get tested for syphilis?

You can get tested for syphilis in an STI clinic or with your GP. Syphilis is usually diagnosed through a blood test, but sometimes a swab is taken from a sore too. You can find your local STI clinic here.

How is syphilis treated?

Syphilis should be treated at an STI clinic. It can be treated with antibiotics, which usually come in the form of penicillin injections which will be done in the clinic. If you’re allergic to penicillin, there are other treatment options available.

When your treatment is finished, the clinic will carry out some blood tests to ensure the infection has cleared.

Just because you’ve had syphilis once does not mean you can’t get it again. The best prevention measure you can take is using a condom for all vaginal, anal and oral sex. While condoms are not 100% effective in preventing STIs, they are the most effective way to protect yourself and your partners.


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For more information on your sexual health and wellbeing please visit

Brought to you by the HSE