Syphilis outbreak Dublin: Doctors issue advice for students returning to college amid recent surge

By Brian Dillon

An outbreak of early infectious syphilis (EIS) was declared in Ireland this July.

In August, the HSE said that there was a potentially large chunk of people who had syphilis but were undiagnosed, partially due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

With the return of in-person events and students going back to college, Dr Gwen Murphy Executive Director Epidemiology & Clinical Studies at LetsGetChecked, provides some advice amid the ongoing outbreak.

General health advice for safe sexual health and preventing STIs

Dr Gwen says: "Many people who develop sexually transmitted infections (STIs) do not get symptoms, but infections left to develop without treatment can cause serious complications.

"If you think you have an STI, the sooner you are tested, the sooner treatment can be given if it's needed.

"An STI can be passed from one person to another through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal and oral sex.

"To help protect yourself from catching, or passing on an STI, always use condoms. Buy condoms that have the CE mark or BSI kitemark on the packet."

What is syphilis?

"Syphilis is a bacterial infection usually caught by having sex with someone who is infected," Dr Gwen explained.

"The symptoms of syphilis are not always obvious and may eventually disappear, but you will generally remain infected unless you get treated. Some people infected with syphilis have no symptoms, so they may not even be aware they are infected.

"If it's left untreated for years, syphilis can spread to the brain or other parts of the body and cause serious long-term problems.

"With high rates of syphilis reported recently in Ireland it is important to get tested for syphilis as soon as possible if you are experiencing symptoms, or have had sex with someone who you believe may have been infected."

What testing and treatment is available? How does one self-diagnose?

Dr Gwen says: "You can get tested at your local STI clinic or your GP. Alternatively, you might be more comfortable ordering a sample collection kit such as those offered by LetsGetChecked which allow you to collect a sample in your own home and send it directly to a lab for analysis.

"Symptoms of syphilis can vary but may include small, painless sores or ulcers that typically appear on the penis, vagina, or around the anus, but can occur in other places such as the mouth, a blotchy red rash that often affects the palms of the hands or soles of the fee, small skin growths (like genital warts) that may develop on the vulva in women or around the anus in both men and women, white patches in the mouth, tiredness, headaches, joint pains, a high temperature (fever) and swollen glands in your neck, groin or armpits."

Overall advice for students and others returning to in-person social activities after prolonged lockdowns

She said: "Just like coronavirus, it is possible to be infected with a sexually transmitted infection without developing symptoms. For this reason, it is important to wear condoms and get tested regularly, particularly if you have any concerns about symptoms or exposure.

"Sexually transmitted infections can cause long-term complications so it is important to get treated early if you have an infection."

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