NHS symptoms of 'Victorian' STI as cases soar to highest level in 75 years

Syphilis infections in England are currently at their highest level since 1948
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Brits have been urged to look out for the symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can cause life-threatening complications after cases were shown to have hit a 75-year high.

Syphilis is a preventable and curable bacterial infection transmitted primarily during unprotected oral, vaginal and anal sex, but can also be passed on in pregnancy and through blood transfusion. Symptoms are often mild and hard to notice, but can lead to serious problems if left untreated, including heart, brain and nerve problems.

The infection was common in Britain from the Tudor to the Victorian era - by the late 18th century, approximately one in five people living in London over the age of 35 were infected with syphilis - until the introduction of penicillin as a cure in the 1940s. However, cases have soared in recent years, with the latest figures from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) showing that infections in England are currently at their highest level since 1948.

9,513 cases of infectious syphilis were diagnosed last year, which included a larger "proportional rise" in diagnoses among heterosexual men and women, while the majority of cases were diagnosed among gay and bisexual men. The NHS and World Health Organisation advise that using a condom during sex can help to prevent the infection.

Dr Hamish Mohammed, consultant epidemiologist at UKHSA, said: "STIs can have a major impact on your health regardless of your age, gender or sexual orientation. The best way to reduce your risk of an infection is to use a condom consistently and correctly with new or casual partners.

"The NHS provides free, confidential STI testing to detect any potential infections and prevent you passing them on to others," he added. The NHS lists the following as symptoms of syphilis to look out for:

  • Small sores (ulcers) on your penis, vagina, or around your bottom (anus) – these are usually painless and you may only have one of them

  • Sores in other areas, including in your mouth or on your lips, hands or bottom

  • White or grey warty growths most commonly on your penis, vagina or around your anus

  • A rash on the palms of your hands and soles of your feet that can sometimes spread all over your body – this is not usually itchy

  • White patches in your mouth

  • Flu-like symptoms, such as a high temperature, headaches and tiredness

  • Swollen glands

  • Patchy hair loss on the head, beard and eyebrows

It can take three weeks or more for the symptoms of syphilis to appear after a person has been infected. Symptoms may improve or go away completely, but if you have not been treated the infection will still be in your body, so it's important to see a GP or go to a sexual health clinic if you notice any of the above symptoms.

If you have symptoms of syphilis, a doctor or nurse will check your genitals for syphilis sores, and they may use a swab to collect a fluid sample from any sores. They will also check the rest of your body for other signs of syphilis such as a rash, sores or wart-like growths.

Syphilis is treated with antibiotics, which you may have as injections, tablets or capsules. You will need to go back to the GP surgery or sexual health clinic six and 12 weeks after starting treatment to be retested, the NHS advises.