Guess who's back, back again...Syphilis - Play Safe
The fun stuff
NSW Government
  • A
  • A

You may think of syphilis as an infection that affected people back in the days of Henry VIII, but we’re here to tell you that syphilis is not only alive and well but is on the rise.

Over the past five years we’ve seen a big increase in cases of syphilis across NSW; specifically — 51% in metropolitan regions and an 83% rise in regional and remote areas. 

A not so fun fact: Women of reproductive age (20 – 39) are the group with the highest rate of infection. 

Now to understand why this is of concern, you need to understand what syphilis is and how it affects the body. So, let’s take a little look at this old (or not so old) STI known as syphilis.

What exactly is syphilis?

Syphilis is a bacterial STI that is spread (transmitted) during sex (vaginal, anal or oral) or close skin-to-skin contact. Though it comes with a host of symptoms to watch out for, it’s important to note that not everyone who has syphilis will have symptoms, so people might not realise they have it.

For those with symptoms, they can appear as…

  • The first symptom of syphilis can be a painless ulcer around the mouth, penis, vagina or anus which may last for 3-6 weeks. Don’t forget, if it’s not front and centre, you may not notice it so grab a mirror (or a trusted friend) and get checking if you feel like something isn’t quite right. The ulcer will heal regardless of whether you need treatment, but this does not mean you do not need treatment.
  • Once the ulcer heals, most people develop a red rash on their body (often on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet). The red rash can last for about 2-6 weeks. A GP can often mistake this for an allergic rash, so it’s important to get an STI test and ask for syphilis to be part of the screening. You may also notice swollen lymph glands, fever, patchy hair loss, muscle and joint aches, headaches and tiredness.  

If left untreated, syphilis can cause other long term health concerns and be contagious for a couple of years after you were infected.  

We hear you, it sounds super scary, but remember that once diagnosed, syphilis is treatable with antibiotics. So, if you think you’re at risk, are showing symptoms or have any other concerns, have an open and honest chat with a qualified medical professional.

What happens if syphilis remains undiagnosed?

Syphilis can cause short and long-term health issues if left undetected and untreated, so it’s important to practice safe sex (use a condom!). This is also why getting regular STI tests is SO important. It’s a hassle-free and easy way to ensure your sexual health is kept in-check and also to prevent the continued spread of STIs. Some longer-term health issues associated with untreated syphilis infections could include:

  • Complications during pregnancy for both the pregnant person and child; such as miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight. 
  • Brain infections, dementia, lung and heart failure, blindness and death — this is more common in those with weakened immune systems and for very long-term, untreated infections.

What else is there to know about syphilis?

Over time syphilis actually stops being contagious to other people but that doesn’t mean it’s gone. Syphilis will only go away with antibiotic treatment. Left undiagnosed and untreated it will continue to have a negative impact on your own health.  

Syphilis is easily tested for, with a blood test. You can chat to your GP, a sexual health clinic, or have a confidential conversation with Nurse Nettie if you have any questions about syphilis or other STIs. 

Did you know? Having syphilis once does not protect you from getting it again. Even after successful treatment, you can get syphilis again, so make sure you are up to date with your STI testing. 

Protecting yourself from syphilis

As with most STIs, the best way to prevent syphilis is to practice safe sex:

  • Always use a condom and water-based lube during vaginal and anal sex
  • Always use a condom or a dam during oral sex

Regular STI testing is really important as condoms are not fully protective. Testing every 6 months or whenever you show symptoms or change sexual partners, will help protect you from STIs like syphilis.

What if I catch syphilis?

Once again, remember that when detected and diagnosed, syphilis is treatable. If you do have syphilis make sure you access treatment through your doctor to help prevent any potential permanent damage to your health.

If you do have syphilis, refrain from sex for seven days from the day you are treated, or until your doctor says you can have sex again.

How do I get tested for syphilis?

Syphilis should be part of your routine STI check-up, but it can’t be diagnosed with a urine test and often requires a blood test (or a swab can also be taken if you have an ulcer). So, if you’re concerned that you may have been exposed to syphilis, head to your local GP and ask for a blood STI test.     

 

Do you have questions about sexual health? Why not join the conversation on the Play Safe sex and relationship forum or ask Nurse Nettie a question. If you would like to find out more about STI testing and STI treatment in Sydney and NSW, you’ll find all the information you need here.

Could I have an STI?