Syphilis is caused by the bacterium Treponema palidum.
It was relatively uncommon and can affect both women and men, but is on the rise again in Australia, mostly in men who have sex with men.
It is spread by unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex with an infected individual when skin-to-skin contact with a syphilitic sore is made. Syphilitic sores most commonly occur on the vagina, cervix, penis, anus and in the mouth. It can also be transmitted from mother to baby during pregnancy and by sharing intravenous needles with someone who is infected.
Often syphilis is asymptomatic (without symptoms). If symptoms do occur, the symptoms depend on the stage of syphilis. There are 3 stages;
Primary Syphilis – a syphilitic sore or ulcer (called a “chancre”) appears at the site of infection 10 days – 3 months after infection. The sore heals by itself within about 4 weeks.
Secondary Syphilis – can occur 2 months – 2 years after infection. Syphilis is known as “the great masquerader” because during this stage, almost any symptom is possible. Common symptoms include a rash, especially on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet (although can occur anywhere) fever, swollen glands, headaches, tiredness, hair loss and muscle & joint pains.
Tertiary or Latent syphilis – can occur years after the primary infection. It is asymptomatic and can effect organs like the brain, nerves and heart.
Syphilis is tested for by a blood test or a swab of the syphilitic sore.
If found early, it is treated by an injection of penicillin or a course of antibiotics taken orally.
In complicated or late cases, it may require intravenous antibiotics.
Syphilis is highly infectious and it is important to get all of your sexual contacts tested and treated from the previous 3 – 6 months (depending on what stage of syphilis you have).
You should abstain from sex or use condoms for all types of sexual activity for 1 week after treatment or until any rash or sores heal.
You should be re-tested after treatment at 3, 6 and 12 months to ensure the Syphilis has been cured.
Even if you have had Syphilis in the past and been treated, you can be re-infected.
To avoid Syphilis, you should practice safe sex with a condom or dental dam.
For more information: