Women and syphilis
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The STI syphilis is on the rise among women aged 15 to 44 in Australia.
This fact sheet provides information about how to protect you and, if you become pregnant, your unborn child.
This fact sheet includes information about:
- what syphilis is and how to find out if you have it
- congenital syphilis and how to protect your unborn child
- why it’s important to have a regular STI test
- how to practise safe sex.
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Women and syphilis
Syphilis is on the rise among women aged 15 to 44 in Australia. Learn more about syphilis and how to protect you and, if you become pregnant, your unborn child.
What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmissible infection (STI) that can cause serious health issues. It is passed from one person to another during sexual activity. There has been an increase in syphilis cases among women. Between 2015 and 2020, rates of infectious syphilis in women aged 15 to 44 increased by 233%*.
You might not know you have syphilis
Not everyone who has syphilis has symptoms, so people often don’t realise they have it. This means that a person could have caught syphilis before they met their current partner and unknowingly passed the infection on to them. That’s why it’s important for you and any sexual partner(s) you have to get tested regularly for STIs like syphilis – even if you have no symptoms.
Syphilis symptoms vary from person to person
For those who do get symptoms of syphilis, the first sign is one or more sores or ulcers at the site of the infection (genitals and mouth). Over time this can develop into rashes, skin lesions, swollen lymph nodes, hair loss, muscle and joint aches, headaches and fatigue. Without treatment, syphilis can cause brain infections, dementia, lung and heart failure, blindness and death.
Passing syphilis on to a baby is dangerous
Untreated syphilis during pregnancy can lead to the mother passing the infection to her baby before birth. This is known as congenital syphilis and can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature births, low birth weight and death of the baby shortly after birth.
A baby with congenital syphilis can also experience serious health issues that affect their growth and development, such as permanent organ and brain damage. Some babies won’t show symptoms until they’re older, which can lead to a delay in diagnosis.
Getting a regular test can help you
Even if you don’t have symptoms, getting tested regularly for syphilis is important. See your local doctor to assess your risk of contracting syphilis and get tested. If you are pregnant, it is recommended you also get tested at your first antenatal visit or during the first 12 weeks of your pregnancy to prevent congenital syphilis.
If you live in an area where there is a syphilis outbreak, you should get tested at your first antenatal visit, at 28 and 36 weeks, when your baby is born, and 6 weeks after birth. To find out whether you live an outbreak area, go to health.gov.au and search “syphilis outbreak”.
Practising safe sex
The best way to prevent syphilis is to practise safe sex:
- Always use condoms with water-based lubricant during vaginal and anal sex.
- Always use condoms or dental dams during oral sex.
- Avoid sexual activity if you or your sexual partner is unwell, especially if they have symptoms of syphilis. This includes rashes, skin lesions, swollen lymph nodes, hair loss, muscle and joint aches, headaches and fatigue.
- Get tested regularly.
Don't fool around with syphilis. For more information go to health.gov.au/syphilis