Don't fool around with syphilis

Syphilis is a sexually transmissible infection (STI) that can affect your whole body. It's serious and cases are on the rise in Australia.

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Syphilis in Australia

In 2022, notifications of infectious syphilis in Australia more than doubled from recorded rates in 2015.

Three populations are especially at risk:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those living in outbreak declared areas of regional and remote Australia
  • women of reproductive age
  • gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.

You might have heard of the sexually transmissible infection called syphilis, but what you might not know is that there’s currently a syphilis outbreak across Australia.

Men who have sex with men, women of childbearing age, and those living in known outbreak areas are most at risk, including affected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Syphilis is a disease caused by a bacteria and it is totally treatable. In fact, with early diagnosis, most people can be completely cured. But we also need to remember it’s a serious disease and over time can cause sores and ulcers, rashes, skin lesions, swollen lymph glands, hair loss, muscle and joint aches, headaches, and fatigue.

And if left untreated, can eventually cause brain infections, dementia, lung and heart failure, blindness and even death.

So how can we stop the rise of syphilis? The best way is to practise safe sex. Use condoms and dental dams, avoid sex if you feel unwell or show symptoms, and get tested regularly.

Remember, people don’t always get symptoms so they don’t always know they have it, which means even regular partners need regular syphilis tests. And if you’re pregnant, early testing is extra important to ensure you don’t pass syphilis onto your baby.

So stay safe, get tested, and have regular health checks.

And don’t fool around with syphilis.

Symptoms of syphilis

Not everyone with syphilis has symptoms, which means people often don’t realise they have the infection. That’s why it’s so important to get tested regularly.

For those with symptoms, the first sign of syphilis is the appearance of sores or ulcers at the site of the infection (genitals and mouth).

Over time, the disease can develop into rashes, skin lesions, swollen lymph nodes, hair loss, muscle and joint aches, headaches and fatigue. If left untreated, syphilis can eventually cause brain infections, dementia, lung and heart failure, blindness and death.

Treatment and prevention

The best way to prevent syphilis is to practise safe sex:

  • always use condoms with condom-safe lubricants (for example water or silicone based) during vaginal and anal sex
  • always use dental dams during oral sex
  • avoid sexual activity if you or your sexual partner are unwell, especially if they have symptoms of syphilis
  • get tested regularly.

Syphilis is easily treatable with antibiotics. If you have been diagnosed with syphilis, it is important to speak with your healthcare provider about the course of treatment that is right for you. If you have syphilis, avoid sex or close sexual contact with another person until you have finished treatment.

Syphilis during pregnancy

Untreated syphilis during pregnancy can lead to the mother passing the infection to their baby before birth.

This can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature births, low birth weight and death of the baby shortly after birth.

A baby with congenital syphilis can experience serious health issues that affect their growth and development, such as permanent organ and brain damage. The World Health Organization reported congenital syphilis as the second leading cause of preventable stillbirth globally.

Some babies affected by congenital syphilis won’t show symptoms until they grow older, which can lead to a delay in diagnosis. 

Get regular syphilis tests

Regular testing for syphilis is important, even if you don’t have symptoms. If detected, it can be treated early and prevent serious health complications.

Pregnant women should also be tested at their first antenatal visit to prevent congenital syphilis.

Pregnant women with a high risk of infection or reinfection should get tested regularly at:

  • the first antenatal visit
  • 28 and 32 weeks according to local guidelines
  • the time of birth
  • 6 weeks after the birth.

Refer to your state or territory's local guidelines for more information. If you are in a region where an outbreak has been declared please check the guidelines as advice regarding repeat testing my differ.

Visit your local doctor or healthcare provider to assess your risk of contracting syphilis and get tested. Visit healthdirect to find a health service in your area.

Authorised by the Australian Government, Canberra.