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Can You Catch Syphilis Without Having Sex?

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is usually passed on through sexual activity with an infected person. But can you catch syphilis without having sex? The short answer is yes. Simply touching an infected sore or sharing items such as sex toys or razors could transmit the disease. In this blog we take a look at some of the scenarios in which you can catch syphilis and take a wider look at the STD as a whole.

couple holding hands

What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is usually caught by having sex with someone that is infected. The condition usually presents with painless sores on the genitals, anus or mouth and will spread through contact with these sores. Caught early, syphilis can be cured with antibiotics, however left untreated, can cause serious health conditions in the heart, brain and other organs.

How Do You Catch Syphilis?

Syphilis is spread via close contact with an infected sore, usually during sex. Less commonly, it can be spread via contact with an active sore during other activities such as touching and kissing. Pregnant women can also pass syphilis onto their unborn child.

You are especially at risk of contracting syphilis if you engage in unprotected sex, have multiple sexual partners, have homosexual sex, or have HIV.

Can You Catch Syphilis Without Having Sex?

Whilst syphilis is most commonly transmitted through sex, it is possible to contract it without having penetrative sex. Just being in close contact with an infected sore is enough to transmit the infection. 

Ways you Can Catch Syphilis without Having Penetrative Sex:

Pregnant Women

Pregnant women can unwittingly pass on Syphilis to their unborn children during the pregnancy or at the time of birth, if the child is born vaginally.

Oral and Anal Sex

If your partner has sores on their genitals when you conduct oral or anal sex, you risk the chance of catching syphilis from them. 


Syphilis isn’t usually transmitted via kissing, but is is more likely if you have had oral sex with an infected partner. Kissing can transmit the disease if you develop sores around or inside the mouth.

Skin-on-Skin Contact

Simply touching syphilis sores can result in contracting the disease. This includes hand stimulation, grinding, and just laying together naked.

Sharing Sex Toys

Sex toys that come into contact with infected sores can easily pass on the disease if they are shared before cleaning. Best practise is to completely avoid sharing sex toys, or at the very least, thoroughly cleaning them before sharing. 

Sharing Razors and Needles

The use of needles and razors causes tiny nicks in the skin in which STIs such as Syphilis, could be contracted through. It is more common for needle sharing to result in the spread of Syphilis, however using a razor after it has been used on infected sores increases the risk of you contracting the disease. 

Things That You Can’t Catch Syphilis From:

Toilet Seats

A common myth, but Syphilis (and most other STIs) cannot be caught from public toilet seats. Syphilis is contracted from contact with infected genital sores. 

Sharing Towels or Clothing 

The only STI that can be contracted from the sharing of towels and clothing is public lice. 

Sharing Food, Drinks or Cutlery

The sharing of food and drink, or cutlery cannot transmit Syphilis. You need to come into contact with the infected sores at the genitals to contract the disease. However, you could, arguably, catch Oral Herpes from the sharing of unwashed cutlery, straws and drinkware, although it is uncommon.

Symptoms and Effects of Syphilis

Now that you know how Syphilis is spread, and if you can catch it without having sex, take some time learn about the various symptoms and effects of the disease.

Symptoms of syphilis tend to develop in stages, and will vary at each stage. However, syphilis can be asymptomatic and you may not notice any symptoms for years. Although left untreated, syphilis can become quite severe in it’s late stages. 

Primary Syphilis

The first sign of syphilis will be a small sore (a chancre) at the point where the bacteria entered your body, usually around three weeks post-transmission. It is usually painless and many people won’t notice it, as it can be hidden in the vagina or anus. 

Secondary Syphilis

After a few weeks you may develop a rash that begins around your genitals, although it will eventually spread over your entire body. You may also develop sores at the genitals, muscle aches, a fever, a sore throat and/or swollen lymph nodes.

Usually, these symptoms will disappear within a few weeks, but they can repeatedly recur for as long as a year.

Latent Syphilis

Untreated, syphilis will progress into latent syphilis, where you are still infected but have no symptoms. The infection may stay at this stage for years without symptoms, however, it could further progress into tertiary syphilis.

Tertiary Syphilis

Tertiary syphilis, also known as late syphilis, is when the untreated disease begins to damage your brain, nerves, eyes, heart and other organs, bones, and joints. This is likely to occur several years after the original infection.


Like tertiary syphilis, neurosyphilis is late stage where the disease spreads to and damages the brain, nervous system and eyes. 

Congenital Syphilis

Mothers that have syphilis can pass on the disease to their unborn babies. This is called congenital syphilis. Most newborns will have no symptoms, however, some will develop a rash on their hands and feet, anemia, and jaundice. In more severe cases, the baby could be born with deformed bones, brain and nerve damage, meningitis, and low birth weight. Babies with congenital syphilis could also be born prematurely or be stillborn.

How is Syphilis Treated?

Syphilis is treated by a course of antibiotic tablets, or via an injected dose of antibiotics into the buttocks. More than one dose may be required if you have had syphilis for a long time. 

During the treatment period, and for two weeks afterwards, it is important to avoid any kind of sexual activity or close contact with another person.

How to Test For Syphilis

Your Sexual Health offers a range of STD tests that can be used to test for syphilis. This includes individual syphilis tests and profile tests that can detect a number of sexual health conditions. 

Our tests are available at clinics across the UK. Some tests are also available as a home-testing kit, where you deposit your sample in the comfort of your own home, and send your sample to our labs for analysis.

Find out more about testing for Syphilis in our recent blogs: Would Syphilis Show in a Routine Blood Test? or How common are false positive syphilis tests in pregnancy?