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What is syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmissible 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 (including fingering, fisting, grinding, mutual masturbation) 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. Over the last few years we have seen a massive increase in WA syphilis cases. It doesn’t matter your gender, sexuality, race, cultural background, or relationship status. Syphilis can affect anyone, so it’s important to use protection, test regularly and get treatment if needed.

About the campaign

It’s crucial to test for and treat syphilis early to prevent further spread and complications. Gay and bisexual men who have sex with men (GBMSM) continue to be affected by syphilis in WA and are more likely to get syphilis when compared to the general population. Some of these men may also have sex with women or people with uteruses, which raises the risk of congenital syphilis. Instead of focusing on labels, WAAC has created a campaign that aims to educate all GBMSM about sexual behaviors and their risk of syphilis.

Encouraging more testing can be done through GPs and other healthcare professionals. Improving comfort, awareness, and knowledge about syphilis testing and treatment is a priority to drive this.

You can find campaign resources at the bottom of this page.

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

The symptoms usually start as sores called chancres. Chancres are small ulcers that are typically hard and painless and occur at the site of infection – this can be on the penis or vulva, or inside the vagina, the anus, or mouth. These are often painless and can heal without treatment after a few weeks.

Secondary syphilis

These usually appear 6 weeks after the chancre/s clear. These include a red, spotty, non-itchy rash on the hands, feet, and in some cases, the chest and back. Other symptoms can include a fever, headache and generally feeling unwell, and swollen lymph nodes.

Latent syphilis

This stage has no physical symptoms.

Tertiary syphilis

On average, 1 in 3 people with untreated latent syphilis will develop tertiary syphilis. In this stage, the syphilis infection can progress to the heart, brain spinal cord, bones, and skin. This stage of infection can make someone very sick and even be life threatening.

Whilst syphilis is no longer infectious at this stage, it is still treatable.

Prevention for syphilis

To reduce your risk of catching syphilis:

  • Use barrier methods such as condoms, dams and/or gloves for all types of sex
  • Get tested for syphilis as part of a general health check up
  • Include syphilis in your regular STI testing, every 3-6 months if changing partners and every year in monogamous relationships
  • Talk about sexual health and safer sex
  • See a healthcare provider if you notice any sores or rashes in or around your mouth or genitals.
  • Get tested for syphilis if you are pregnant or planning to get pregnant.

Remember: PrEP only protects against HIV, so using a condom even if you are on PrEP is important to protect against other STIs, including syphilis. 


  • Click here to find where to book an STI test.
  • Include syphilis in your regular STI testing. Test every 3-6 months if you are having sex with casual partners.
  • Get tested for syphilis as part of your general health check-up or if you are having other blood tests taken.
  • See a healthcare provider if you notice any sores or rashes on your skin, particularly your anus, genitals, and mouth.
  • Get tested if a recent partner has tested positive for syphilis.

Tip: book your next appointment each time you go in, so you don’t have to remember to book one.

Treatment for syphilis

Treatment varies depending on the stage of the infection and symptoms. Treatment involves an injection of antibiotics, or a course of oral antibiotics (if you can’t have the injection due to a penicillin allergy). Your healthcare provider will be able to discuss your treatment with you and answer any questions you may have.

Having sex with men and women? Syphilis can be transmitted from a pregnant person to the baby during pregnancy, which can lead to serious complications. 

Campaign Resources 

These resources are free for your agency to download and use. If you have any questions or would like professionally printed posters, please contact at [email protected]. We also encourage you to visit our social media platforms and share WAAC’s campaign content directly. For a full suite of resources, please click here

Syphilis Testing Flowchart

This tool has been designed to provide the essential information needed for syphilis testing and treatment for GPs to implement in their medical practice. You can find this here.

Syphilis Webinar

The WAAC Health Promotion together with the M Clinic team will be hosting a professional development webinar for Primary Healthcare providers across WA. Focusing on syphilis, this webinar will provide an overview of testing and serology interpretation, treatment options, case studies and referrals and supports for more information. Please RSVP via the link below.

When: Tuesday 9th April, 12:30 – 1:30 pm

Platform: Microsoft Teams

Sign up:


664 Murray Street, West Perth 6005