What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is caused by a bacterial infection and can cause serious health problems if left untreated. However, syphilis is easy to cure if found early.


What are the symptoms?

There are four stages of syphilis infection: primary, secondary, latent and tertiary.

In the primary syphilis stage (10-90 days after infection) symptoms include a painless sore (or sometimes multiple sores) called a ‘chancre’ which can appear in the mouth, anus, penis, vagina or cervix. It looks like a roundish area of broken skin that has an infected centre. It can be weepy, and have pus coming from it.

The sore often goes unnoticed because it is usually painless and may be hidden from view (eg. in the rectum or on the cervix). This usually clears up after two to six weeks but the infection remains in your body.
In the secondary syphilis stage (7-10 weeks after infection) symptoms include a red rash on the palms, soles, chest or back, fever, enlarged glands in the armpits and groin, hair loss, headaches and tiredness. The rash is slightly lumpy, but not itchy or painful. Again the symptoms may go unnoticed in this stage.

In the latent syphilis stage there are no noticeable symptoms, but the body is still infected. If syphilis is not treated at this stage it may remain latent (hidden) for life or it can develop into tertiary syphilis.

Tertiary syphilis develops in about one third of people with untreated latent syphilis. In this stage, the bacteria can damage almost any part of the body including the heart, brain, spinal cord, eyes and bones, resulting in mental illness, blindness, deafness, neurological problems, heart disease and even death. This can happen many years after the primary infection.
Syphilis can cause birth defects or even death in an unborn baby.


How is syphilis spread?

Syphilis is usually passed on during anal, oral or vaginal sex. It is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact with an infected area.
Syphilis is highly infectious during the stages when the sore or rash is present. It can also be passed on during the early part of the latent phase.
Some people may not have any sores, but still pass on the infection. Syphilis can be passed from a mother to a baby before it is born, causing birth defects, seizures, developmental delay or miscarriage
or stillbirth.


When should I have a syphilis test?

You should have a syphilis test if:

  • you have had unprotected sex
  • you have recently changed sexual partner/s
  • you have more than one current sexual partner
  • you have signs or symptoms of genital infection, an unusual sore or an unexplained rash
  • you have been diagnosed as having another STI, for example chlamydia, herpes or warts
  • you have a sexual partner who has been diagnosed as having syphilis or another STI
  • you are pregnant


How is syphilis tested?

Syphilis can be detected with a blood test. If there is a sore, a doctor or nurse will take a swab and test it. The blood test measures your body’s response to infection and looks for current and past infection. It can take 3 months to see this response, so the tests may be negative early on.

Syphilis should always be tested for at the beginning of pregnancy to prevent infection of unborn babies.


How is syphilis treated?

Syphilis is treated with antibiotics given as an injection. Often only one injection is needed, this depends on the stage of infection. You will need to have follow up blood tests to make sure the infection is gone. You can still be reinfected if you are exposed to syphilis again after treatment.
It’s important to avoid sexual intercourse for one week after treatment so that you don’t pass on the infection or become reinfected yourself.

Your sexual partner/s of the last 3-6 months need to be tested and may need treatment. Your doctor or nurse can tell how far back partners need to be contacted and can help you contact previous partners. There are also websites where partner notification can be done anonymously.
You should not have sex with any recent partners until they have also been tested and treated for 7 days.

Syphilis is a notifiable STI. This means that the doctor has a legal requirement to notify SA Health of the syphilis infection. This information will be confidential.
Follow up tests may be recommended at 3, 6 and 12 months after treatment and you can check for other STIs if there has been any new risk of infection.


Prevention of syphilis

  • Use condoms, dams and gloves when you have sex.
  • Make sure semen, blood, vaginal or anal fluid are not passed between partners.
  • Talk about any past infections with your sexual partner/s.
  • Get tested regularly


Where can I get tested?

  • You can visit SHINE SA for further information, testing and treatment.
  • You can also:
  • Make an appointment with your local doctor, health care provider or Aboriginal Health service.
  • Contact Adelaide Sexual Health Centre: drop in or phone.
    275 North Terrace, Adelaide
    Tel: 7117 2800