What is Syphilis?

By  Youth Projects     |    Updated: 25th April, 2017    |    4 min read

Sif-ah-lis (bacteria)

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted Infection that’s been around for centuries. Many people throughout history, from royals to peasants, have been infected with Syphilis. Fortunately the bacteria causing Syphilis can be treated with Penicillin.

After the discovery and use of Penicillin (the first ever antibiotic) in the 20th century, there was a great decline in the number of infections. Unfortunately, the number of cases of Syphilis in Australia has increased recently, particularly in men who have sex with men.

How do you get Syphilis?

Syphilis is passed from person to person during oral, vaginal and anal sex with a person who has the Syphilis is highly contageous when sores or a rash are present.infection. It can also be transmitted through skin to skin contact as it is highly contagious when sores or a rash are present. And like most STIs, Syphilis can be transmitted from mother to baby.

In Australia, most pregnant women are screened for Syphilis so that treatment can be given to prevent infection in the baby.

Syphilis can also be passed on through unscreened blood transfusion (though this is extremely rare in Australia).

Signs and symptoms

Syphilis is divided into 3 different stages beginning with when you are first infected.


One of the first symptoms of Syphilis infection is the presence of sores on the skin, most commonly in the genital region. Sores can occur around the anus in people who have anal sex.

Sores may also be found in the rectum and cervix and so can go unnoticed. Sometimes sores can occur on the lips, tongue, and fingers. In the earliest stages of the infection, you may not be able to see these sores.

The sores do not generally cause pain so an infected person may not see any reason to go their doctor. These sores generally heal by themselves and the infection then lies quiet for a while (unless treated), causing no new symptoms for weeks, months or even up to two years. But the bacteria are still present in the body so another lot of symptoms can occur later on.


IMPORTANT NOTE: Some of these symptoms are seen in other illnesses, not just Syphilis, so a health check and blood tests are important.

  • Red skin rash, including on the soles of the feet and palms of the hands (Moist skin lesions are the most infectious as the fluid contains lots of the bacteria).
  • General lethargy and tiredness.
  • Hair loss.
  • Lumps or ulcers on the genitals (on and around the vagina or penis).
  • Enlarged (bigger than normal) lymph nodes in the armpits, neck and groin area.


Approximately one third of people infected with Syphilis who do not get any treatment, go on to the third stage.

This stage is the most serious but is easily avoided if you get treatment early on. The symptoms of the third stage are the result of serious damage to the brain, spinal cord or heart. At this stage, the infection can no longer be transmitted to another person.

How do you prevent getting Syphilis?

Using condoms and dams will greatly reduce your risk of getting Syphilis.

It’s also important to get medical advice if you notice any lumps, rashes or sores in your mouth and on or around your genitals or anus.

Using condoms & dams will greatly reduce the risk of getting Syphilis.In addition to this, men who have sex with men are advised to have regular sexual health checks including tests for Syphilis and sex workers are advised to be screened for Syphilis infection every 3 months.

How do you find out if you have Syphilis?

A Syphilis infection is confirmed by a blood test. In some instances the bacteria can be identified under a microscope from samples of any sores, rashes or, more rarely, spinal fluid. Blood tests are used to check how well treatment is working for people who have already got Syphilis.

How do you get treated for Syphilis?

Thankfully the bacteria that causes Syphilis can still be killed off with Penicillin. Penicillin is given by a few injections (usually in the buttock) over a number of days. It’s extremely important to complete the course of injections otherwise the treatment might not work and you will still be infected with Syphilis.

Your doctor will monitor how well the treatment is working for you by taking blood tests for a few months.

In some cases treatment must be repeated. If you are allergic to Penicillin a different antibiotic can be used. It is generally advised that whilst you’re still having treatment, you don’t have sex.

If this isn’t a realistic option for you, be sure to always use a condom or dam.

Also check the related topics:  

Types of STI’s Sex & Sexual Health

Factsheet provided by Youth Projects


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