Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. It’s spread through unprotected anal, oral (including rimming) and vaginal sex. It can also be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact with someone who has syphilis.
Not many people know about syphilis today or what to watch out for. Around 50% of cases have no symptoms and symptoms are often easily missed when they are there. This means many people don’t think they have syphilis when they really do. Over the last few years and especially since COVID, we have seen a massive increase in WA syphilis cases.
Signs and symptoms
Syphilis is broken down into different stages, each with their own set of symptoms. Not everyone experiences all the symptoms, and it’s very possible for someone to have syphilis and not experience any of them. As syphilis progresses in the body, there is a far greater risk of complications and health impacts. This is why regular testing and early treatment is key.
The presence of a chancre (small, hard and painless ulcer) at the site of infection – this can be on the penis, on the vulva, inside the vagina, inside the anus, or mouth. Chancres are most commonly singular (only one). However, sometimes there can be multiple. They are typically painful and have pus in that case. A chancre typically appears 3 weeks after infection and will last between 2-12 weeks. Chancres can often be missed due to location (i.e. inside the vagina or anus) and because of the lack of pain.
Secondary syphilis symptoms usually appear 6 weeks after the symptoms of primary syphilis and resolve within several weeks. But they can reoccur. Symptoms include:
- Fever, headache, generally feeling unwell
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Red spotty rash that affects the palms, soles and/or trunk
- Hair loss
- Warty growths around the genitals and anus
Once the infection progresses past the secondary stage, it enters the latent stage which displays no symptoms. It can last anywhere between a few years and up to 30 years. Some people will spontaneously eliminate the infection and for others it will spread throughout the body and most to the tertiary stage.
Syphilis infection can progress to the heart, nervous system, eyes, ears and skin. It can lead to mild to severe damage in the areas it spreads to. Thankfully we have access to treatment and testing in Australia so we don’t see a huge amount of tertiary syphilis cases.
Treatment for syphilis
Treatment varies depending on what stage of a syphilis infection you are at, but most of the time it’s really simple. It’ll either be a few injections or oral antibiotics. Your healthcare provider will be able to discuss your treatment with you and answer any questions you may have.
Syphilis is not like chickenpox. You can still get it again. Condoms are great for prevention, but they’re not always completely foolproof.
WA is dealing with a syphilis outbreak at the moment. It doesn’t matter your gender, sexuality, race, culture or relationship status. We’ve seen syphilis cases connected between different groups so it’s important to use protection, get tested and get treatment if you need it.