How does a syphilis test work?

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How does a syphilis test work?

How does a syphilis test work? Let’s run through everything you need to know about the process including when you should consider taking a syphilis test, the symptoms to look out for and the treatments to consider. 

Syphilis is a bacterial STD that can affect both men and women, it is caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum. Syphilis is contracted through intimate skin-to-skin contact with an infected partner. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were more than 115,000 syphilis cases in 2018, and that number is set to continue growing. The number of primary and secondary syphilis cases – the most infectious stages of syphilis – increased 14 percent to more than 35,000 cases in that same year, the highest number reported since 1991. Among newborns, syphilis cases increased 40 percent to more than 1,300 cases.

How does a syphilis test work?

A syphilis test usually comes in the form of a blood test. 

This blood test can either be performed using an at home STD test, or you can visit your doctor to perform the test. 

syphilis-test tube

Syphilis tests are quite quick and simple. If you are taking an at home syphilis test, you simply: 

  1. Order the test kit online 
  2. Collect your blood sample in the home 
  3. Return your sample to the lab 
  4. Receive your results via phone call or email

If you are undergoing syphilis screening in a doctor’s office, you simply: 

  1. Book an appointment 
  2. Get your bloods taken by a health professional 
  3. Receive your results via follow up appointment or phone call

If you are undergoing primary syphilis screening, there is nothing that you need to do ahead of your appointment to prepare. 

As outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are two main types of blood test for syphilis. 

Nontreponemal tests detect biomarkers that are released by the cells that have been damaged by syphilis. These tests are more affordable and typically used for screening, but they have lower sensitivity during early primary syphilis and late-stage syphilis. Nontreponemal tests have a higher chance of producing false negative and false positive results.

Treponemal tests, on the other hand, detect antibodies specific to the Treponema bacteria. Treponemal antibodies appear earlier than nontreponemal antibodies and usually remain detectable for life, even after successful treatment. If a treponemal test is used for screening and the results are positive, a nontreponemal test with titer may be ordered to confirm the diagnosis and guide your treatment. Based on the results, further testing may be required. Both types of tests are routinely used to confirm syphilis diagnoses.

So, who should get tested for syphilis?

You should get tested for syphilis if:

  • You are experiencing any symptoms of syphilis
  • Your sexual partner has recently been diagnosed with syphilis
  • You are pregnant 
  • You are a sexually active man who has sex with men (msm)
  • You are living with HIV and are sexually active 
  • You are taking PrEP for HIV prevention

Where can you get a syphilis test? 

You can get an at home syphilis test from the following providers:

For a STD test price comparison, visit our latest article where we compare the market so you can get the most cost effective option.

What are the symptoms of syphilis? 

The symptoms of syphilis can be difficult to notice and can change subtly over time. Syphilis symptoms usually take 2-3 weeks to develop. There are four stages of syphilis including:

  • Primary 
  • Secondary 
  • Latent 
  • Tertiary

Primary syphilis symptoms

  • Chancres/circular firm sores on the sex organs, mouth or rectum. This sore is typically painless and will heal on its own within a few weeks.

Secondary syphilis symptoms

  • A skin rash that usually starts on the abdomen or back, and spreads to cover your entire body, including the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet. This rash is typically reddish brown and heals without leaving scars.
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever
  • A sore throat
  • Loss of appetite 

Latent syphilis symptoms 

  • No symptoms, this is the “silent phase” of the condition that occurs 12 months after initial infection 

Tertiary syphilis symptoms 

  • Tertiary syphilis often occurs in the years following infection. If the condition has not been diagnosed, it can affect the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. If left untreated, syphilis can cause serious health complications, but if diagnosed, the treatment will involve a fast acting injection which can eliminate the infection. However, treatment isn’t always able to reverse the damage that syphilis has already caused.

FAQs

What happens if syphilis goes untreated? 

Untreated syphilis can lead to serious health complications such as damage to the brain and nervous system (neurosyphilis) or to the eye (ocular syphilis). These health complications usually occur 10-30 years after primary infection. 

Symptoms of neurosyphilis include

  • severe headache;
  • difficulty coordinating muscle movements;
  • paralysis (not able to move certain parts of your body);
  • numbness; and
  • dementia (mental disorder).

Is syphilis contagious? 

Syphilis is highly contagious, therefore if you notice a chancre, you should get tested as soon as possible. 

Can you get syphilis twice?

You can get syphilis twice, even if you have been treated for syphilis, you can contract syphilis again through unprotected sex with an infected partner. 

When should I get tested? 

You should get tested if you are experiencing any symptoms of syphilisor if you have been notified that a previous sexual partner has syphilis. 

Other reasons to take a syphilis test include: 

  • You are pregnant 
  • You are a sexually active man who has sex with men (msm)
  • You are living with HIV and are sexually active 
  • You are taking PrEP for HIV prevention

Written by Hannah Kingston on February 22, 2021

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