What is syphilis?Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. It’s spread through unprotected anal, oral and vaginal sex. It can also be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact with someone who has syphilis. One of the early symptoms of syphilis are lumps called chancres. Chancres are small ulcers that are typically hard and painless and found around the genitals or other body parts where you have sex. Contact with chancres can be a way to spread the infection. 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.
What are the symptoms of syphilis?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. This is why testing is super important.
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.