SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Syphilis is a sexually transmissible infection (STI). Anyone who is sexually active is at risk of infection.
- Syphilis is curable but, if left untreated, can lead to serious complications.
- A simple blood test can detect syphilis.
- It is important to let your sexual partner or partners know that you have syphilis so that they can be tested and treated. Your local doctor or sexual health centre can help you to do this.
- Always have safe sex – use a condom, and water-based lubricant for all types of sex. Syphilis may also be spread through unprotected oral sex.
- Women can pass syphilis infection to their babies during pregnancy. Syphilis can cause miscarriage, serious birth defects in babies and stillbirth (where a baby is born dead).
On this page
- What is syphilis?
- Victorian syphilis cases are rising
- Who is at risk of syphilis?
- How often to get checked for syphilis
- What are the symptoms of syphilis?
- What is congenital syphilis?
- How does syphilis spread?
- How is syphilis diagnosed?
- How is syphilis treated?
- Can you get reinfected with syphilis?
- Letting partners know you have syphilis
- Reducing syphilis transmission
- Where to get help
- Information in your language
- Videos – get tested for syphilis
What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmissible infection (STI) caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum. It can affect anyone.
Syphilis is transmitted through close skin-to-skin contact. Itis highly contagious when the syphilis sore (chancre) or rash is present.
The incubation period for syphilis ranges from 10 days to 3 months.
You can pick up syphilis through unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sex with a person who is infected.
Syphilis can also be transmitted from mother to baby during pregnancy and birth. This is called congenital syphilis.
Early treatment of syphilis is effective.
Some people may not seek medical advice because they may not have symptoms or notice early syphilis symptoms.
Untreated syphilis may lead to chronic brain or heart disease and can be fatal.
Victorian syphilis cases are rising
In recent years, the number of people with infectious syphilis in Victoria has increased rapidly, mainly among gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM).
An increase of syphilis in women (particularly those of reproductive age) has also led to the re-emergence of congenital syphilis (including foetal deaths) in Victoria since 2017.
Who is at risk of syphilis?
Regular sexual health check-ups (at least annually) are recommended for anyone who is sexually active. You are more at risk of syphilis infection if you are:
- a man who has sex with men
- a partner of men who have sex with men
- pregnant or of reproductive age (15-49 years)
- a sexual partner of someone who is pregnant
- heterosexual and have multiple sexual partners
- a traveller who has returned from countries where syphilis is common
- someone who injects drugs
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
- a sex worker
- someone who has been diagnosed with an STI (such as HIV, gonorrhoea, chlamydia)
How often to get checked for syphilis
If you are sexually active, get a full sexual health check at least once a year. This includes testing for:
The frequency of sexual health checks depends on your STI risk:
- Men who have sex with men and have more than one partner – every 3 to 6 months.
- A man who has sex with another man (has one partner) – once a year.
- Pregnancy – syphilis testing is always done as part of routine antenatal screening. If you are at a higher risk of syphilis, you should be tested multiple times during pregnancy and after your baby is born.
What are the symptoms of syphilis?
There are 3 stages of syphilis.
Only the first 2 stages are infectious, and symptoms vary depending on the stage.
You are also at a higher risk of HIV infection during sexual contact if you have syphilis symptoms.
First (or primary) stage syphilis symptoms
The first stage of syphilis is highly contagious and usually occurs over 4 to 12 weeks.
Some people may not notice they have syphilis because they have no symptoms.
Symptoms usually begin as a sore (ulcer) on the genitals (penis or vagina), anus or mouth.
- may be difficult to notice because it is on hidden or painless
- can appear on areas of sexual contact (such as the mouth, rectum, vagina or cervix)
- is likely to occur as a single sore but may appear as multiple sores
- is usually painless
- appears 3 to 4 weeks after infection (but it can occur any time between 1 and 12 weeks)
- usually heals completely within 4 weeks without any treatment.
If you are not treated for syphilis at this stage, you may go on to develop the second stage of the infection.
Second (or secondary) stage syphilis symptoms
The second stage begins around 2 to 4 months after contracting syphilis and (may last up to 2 years).
This is a highly contagious stage. You may experience the following symptoms:
- a flat, red skin rash – on the soles of your feet, palms of your hands, or it may cover your entire body
- swollen lymph nodes
- hair loss (especially of the eyebrows)
- joint pain
- flu-like illness
- the rash may mimic other common skin conditions (such as measles).
Diagnosis may be missed if a syphilis blood test is not done.
If you are infected with syphilis and do not seek treatment, you may develop the third stage of the infection.
Third (or tertiary) stage of syphilis
The third stage of syphilis may occur 10 to 30 years after the initial infection.
This stage affects around one third of untreated people.
It can affect various organs, mainly the brain and heart. Severe complications may occur.
Syphilis is not infectious at this stage but is still treatable.
What is congenital syphilis?
Congenital syphilis occurs when a mother with syphilis passes the infection on to her baby during pregnancy or birth.
Congenital syphilis can have serious health impacts on your baby. This depends on how long you had syphilis and if, or when, you were treated for the infection.
Left untreated, syphilis during pregnancy can cause:
- miscarriage (losing the baby during pregnancy)
- stillbirth (a baby born dead)
- premature labour (a baby born early)
- low birth weight
- death shortly after birth.
Congenital syphilis symptoms in babies
While some babies may have no congenital syphilis symptoms at birth, others may be born with:
- bone deformities
- severe anaemia (low red blood cell count)
- issues with their vital organs (liver and kidneys)
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
- brain and nerve problems (like vision or hearing loss)
- skin rashes.
Early congenital syphilis symptoms (up to 2 years of age) may include:
- a runny nose
- skin eruptions
- bone abnormalities
- eye, liver or kidney problems.
Late congenital syphilis symptoms (which presents after 2 years) may include:
- a variety of skeletal problems
- dental defects
- eye problems
- hearing loss.
How does syphilis spread?
Syphilis is spread (transmitted) through close skin-to-skin contact.
You can catch syphilis by having unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sex with anyone who is in the first 2 stages of the infection.
Syphilis is highly contagious when the sore or rash is present.
Pregnant women who have syphilis can pass on the infection to their baby during pregnancy or birth.
Syphilis can also be passed through infected blood. However, blood used in blood donations is routinely screened for syphilis in Australia.
How is syphilis diagnosed?
A regular sexual health check-up with your local GP (doctor) can detect syphilis. Just ask your doctor or nurse for a test.
Syphilis is easy to detect using:
- a simple blood test
- a swab test – if there are sores present.
Getting your syphilis test results
Test results are normally available within a week.
How is syphilis treated?
Penicillin is a very effective treatment for all stages of syphilis (including congenital syphilis).
Other treatments are available if you are allergic to penicillin. Or you may be able to undergo a desensitisation procedure that safely allows you to be given penicillin.
Early treatment helps to prevent further complications and to avoid passing the infection on to sexual partners or to an unborn baby during pregnancy.
Avoid sexual contact until your treatment is completed.
Although the treatment is straightforward, it is important to repeat blood tests to check that the treatment has worked.
Follow-up blood tests may be recommended at 3, 6 and 12 months after treatment.
Can you get reinfected with syphilis?
Having syphilis once does not protect you from getting it again.
Even after you’ve been successfully treated, you can still be reinfected by having sex with a partner who has syphilis.
Letting partners know you have syphilis
It is important to let all your sexual partners (regular and casual) know that you have syphilis. Most people will appreciate being told they may have an infection.
Letting your partners know will also protect you and your partners from serious health problems. It’s also important in helping to prevent further infection in the community.
You do not have to do this alone. Your (GP) doctor, sexual health centre or the Department of Health Partner Notification Officers can help you through this process and ensure your identity is not revealed.
This publication outlines the role of Partner Notification Officers (PNOs) who work in the Office of the Chief Health Officer of the Department of Health:
Partner notification can also be done anonymously via the Let Them Know website. You can look at tips and send an SMS, email or letter if you feel unable to speak to your partners personally.
Department of Health nurses (called partner notification officers) can also help you anonymously notify your partners. They can be contacted on (03) 9096 3367.
Reducing syphilis transmission
Ways to reduce your risk of catching syphilis include:
- Practise safe sex – use condoms and water-based lubricant (lube) for all types of sex. Female (or internal) condoms can also be used for vaginal or anal sex.
- If you are sexually active, get a full sexual health check (including tests for syphilis, HIV, gonorrhoea and chlamydia) at least once a year.
- If you are at greater risk of STIs, get tested regularly. Men who have sex with men get a syphilis test and tests for other STIs at least yearly, and up to 4 times a year if you have several partners.
- Seek early medical advice for oral, genital or anal sores, or rashes that are related to recent sexual contact.
- If you are pregnant or planning a family, you and your partner should have an STI test to prevent any infections being passed onto your baby.
- Remember, syphilis may be spread through unprotected oral sex.
Where to get help
- Your GP (doctor)
- Your school nurse or welfare coordinator. Some secondary schools provide access to an adolescent health trained GP on site
- Your local community health service
- Your pharmacist (including after hours Victorian Supercare Pharmacies)
- 1800 My Options – Victoria’s sexual and reproductive health information and phone line service Tel. 1800 My Options (1800 696 784)
- Sexual Health Victoria (SHV) – book an appointment online or call Melbourne CBD Clinic: (03) 9660 4700, Box Hill Clinic: (03) 9257 0100 or (free call): 1800 013 952 (Monday to Friday 9 am – 5 pm). These services are youth friendly
- Melbourne Sexual Health Centre (Monday to Friday 8:30 am – 5 pm) Tel. (03) 9341 6200 or 1800 032 017 or National Relay Service (for people with a hearing impairment) (03) 9341 6200
- Thorne Harbour Health (formerly Victorian AIDS Council) Tel. (03) 9865 6700 or 1800 134 840 (toll free)
- The Centre Clinic, St Kilda Tel. (03) 9525 5866
- Equinox Gender Diverse Health Centre (Monday to Friday 9 am – 5 pm) Tel. (03) 9416 2889 or email: email@example.com
- PRONTO! Clinic for men who have sex with men. Book online or Tel. Tel. (03) 9416 2889
- Ballarat Community Health Sexual Health Clinic – book online or Tel. (03) 5338 4541
- Bendigo Community Health Sexual Health Clinic – book online Tel. (03) 5406 1200 or (03) 5448 1600
- Gateway Health Sexual and Reproductive Health – Clinic 35, Wodonga (Monday to Friday 9 am – 5 pm) Tel. (02) 6022 8888 and Wangaratta Tel. (03) 5723 2000 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Sunraysia Community Health Services, Mildura (Monday to Friday 8:30 am – 5 pm) Tel. (03) 5022 5444 or email to: email@example.com
- Barwon Health Sexual Health Clinic (no GP referral, walk-in service Tuesdays 2 pm – 6:30 pm) Tel. (03) 5226 7489
- Victorian Aboriginal Health Service Fitzroy: Tel. (03) 9419 3000 and Preston Tel. (03) 9403 3300 (Monday to Friday 10 am – 4 pm) and after-hours locum service Tel. 132 660 or Epping: Tel. (03) 8592 3920 (Monday to Thursday 9 am-5 pm, Friday 9 am-4 pm)
- Sexual Assault Crisis Line Tel.1800 806 292
Information in your language
Find out important information about syphilis, treatment and where to get tested.
Melbourne Sexual Health Centre's Syphilis – get the facts is available as a PDF download from Health Translations Directory:
- Syphilis (English)
- الزهري (Arabic)
- 梅毒 (Chinese simplified)
- 梅毒 (Japanese)
- 매독 (Korean)
- Sífilis (Spanish)
- Syphilis (Tagalog – Filipino)
- โรคซิฟิลิส (Thai)
- Bệnh giang mai (Vietnamese)
Listen to STI and syphilis information in various community languages on allgood.org.au including:
- Torres Strait Yumplatok
- Bahasa Indonesia
- Bahasa Melayu
- Chinese simplified
- Dinka ee Jieng
- Shona chiShona
- Somali Af-Soomaali
- Swahili (Kishwahili)
Videos – get tested for syphilis
- Australian STI Management Guidelines for use in primary care, Australian Society for HIV, Viral Hepatitis and Sexual Health Medicine (ASHM)
- Sexually Transmissible Infections, Red Book Communicable Diseases, RACGP, Australia
- Syphilis cases continue to rise in Victoria, Chief Health Officer Health Advisory, Department of Health, Victoria