Faded floral pattern on neutral background (image)


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.

Primary syphilis

Many people will develop a chancre – a sore/ulcer on the genitals (penis or vagina), anus or mouth. These ulcers are usually painless, and if they are hidden you won’t know it’s there, and they are highly infectious. These ulcers are most likely to occur as a single sore, however there can be multiple ones. Sometimes the ulcers can be painful so always have any unusual sores checked out. A chancre typically appears 3 weeks after infection and will usually heal on its own within about 6 weeks but may take longer. It is important to note that even when this ulcer has healed you are still infectious and may develop into Secondary Syphilis.

Secondary syphilis

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
Latent syphilis

Syphilis will then move into a stage where you will experience no symptoms. You are still infected during this stage. This is called ‘latent syphilis’. After a couple of years, you can’t pass the infection to others, even though you remain infected.

The latent stage can continue for many years (even decades) after you first become infected. Without treatment, there is a risk that latent syphilis will move on to the more serious stage –tertiary syphilis.

Tertiary syphilis

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 significant number of tertiary syphilis cases. However, at this stage, syphilis can be dangerous enough to cause death.

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.