Syphilis fact sheet
What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection. Some people might not have symptoms or only have mild symptoms that last for a short time. If it is not treated, syphilis can cause serious health problems, so it is important to get tested. Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics.
How do you get syphilis?
Syphilis is spread from person to person through sexual activity or close skin-to-skin contact. This might be through unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sex.
Syphilis can also be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy. This can cause serious health problems for the baby if the mother is not treated.
What are the symptoms?
The first signs of syphilis may not last long, so you can have it and pass it on without knowing. Not all people with syphilis have symptoms. You may not know you have it unless you are tested for it.
You might get an ulcer or a sore (called a chancre) around the genital area or mouth 3 to 12 weeks after infection. The sore can be any shape or size and is often painless, so you may not notice it. This is called the primary stage of the disease. Even after the sore heals you can still pass the infection on to others if you haven' t been treated.
Without treatment, more symptoms may appear 2 to 6 months after getting infected. This is the secondary stage. Symptoms can last 6 months or more.
These symptoms can be:
- A skin rash on the face, palms of hands and soles of feet
- Swollen glands
- Pain in your bones, joints and muscles
- Hair loss
- Lumps around your groin, genitals and anus
If not treated, syphilis will stay in your body for up to two years. It can be passed on even if the symptoms have gone. If not treated, syphilis can affect the brain, heart, blood vessels, spinal cord, skin and bones. This is called tertiary syphilis and can cause severe illness and death.
What happens if you have syphilis during pregnancy?
If a pregnant person has syphilis, it can be passed onto the baby and put its life at risk. This is called congenital syphilis. If syphilis is treated early in pregnancy, it lowers the risk of illness for the baby.
Pregnant people should get tested for syphilis early and often throughout their pregnancy.
Who is at risk?
Anyone who is sexually active can get syphilis. In Australia, groups who are at higher risk include:
- Men who have sex with men.
- Female partners of men who have sex with men.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
- Babies of mothers who have not had testing and treatment in pregnancy.
To lower your risk:
- Have regular sexual health checks.
- Talk about sexual health with your partners.
- Avoid having sex with someone who has a sore on their genitals.
Additionally, always do the following until you are completely sure you and your partner do not have a sexually transmissible infection:
- Use condoms during vaginal and anal sex.
- Use dams during oral sex.
- Use water-based lubricant.
How do you get tested?
Talk to your doctor or health clinic about a simple blood test for syphilis. If you have a sore, you might also need a swab from the sore. If you are sexually active, yearly tests are recommended.
People at higher risk, such as men who have sex with multiple male partners might need testing more often.
Regular testing is especially important in pregnancy or for anyone planning a pregnancy.
There is a short time after getting syphilis when the blood tests might not pick up the infection. You might be asked to have a repeat test.
How is it treated?
Penicillin is the usual treatment for syphilis. If you are allergic to penicillin, there are other options.
Early treatment is important for your health and to ensure you don’t pass it on. Treatment is very important if you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy.
It is important to have repeat blood tests to check that the treatment has worked. These tests may be done 3, 6 and 12 months later.
When is it safe to have sex?
You should not have sex until your rash or sore clears up and at least seven days after finishing treatment.
Do you need to let your partners know?
Yes, it is very important that all (both regular and casual) sexual partners know that you have syphilis. They also need to be seen by a doctor and tested.
All of your sexual partners from the last few months should be seen by a doctor.
How can you let your partners know?
Most people prefer to do this themselves, either in person or by phone call or text message.
Talk with your doctor for help. If you do not feel comfortable contacting partners yourself, there are two websites that help you send a free and anonymous text message or email.
The Drama Downunder
This website is specifically for men with male sexual partners.
Can you get reinfected?
You can get syphilis again even after you have been treated.
The best way to avoid becoming reinfected is to tell all sexual partners and make sure they are treated. Always use condoms and have regular sexual health screens.
For free and confidential information and treatment for sexually transmissible infections and information on safer sex, you can contact Sexual Health Services Tasmania.
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|Launceston||34 Howick Street||(03) 6777 1371|
Melbourne Sexual Health Centre has sexual health fact sheets translated into other languages.