Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by bacteria. It infects the genital area, anus and mouth and lips of both men and women.


Syphilis is extremely infectious and is usually  transmitted sexually. This may include vaginal, anal or oral sex or just close skin-to-skin contact. The chances of catching syphilis are lower if  condoms are used during sex. Syphilis can also be  passed from mother to baby during pregnancy if the mother is infected. It can also cause miscarriage or still-birth.

Signs and Symptoms

There are a number of symptoms of syphilis, which show up at different stages in the infection. The symptoms are the same in men as in women.

Early Symptoms

  • sores may appear on the body, usually around the penis or vagina
  • a rash with small spots may appear – these small spots don’t itch
  • a person may feel unwell, often as if they have a very bad cold

Later Stages

If left untreated, syphilis can lead to more serious health problems later in life. These can include:

  • heart problems
  • eyesight problems
  • problems with the nervous system.

It is still possible to  treat syphilis during this stage but  these more serious  health issues may persist.


Syphilis can be confirmed through asimple blood test.  If sores or blisters are present, these may be swabbed for analysis.

The NZAF provides rapid syphilis testing, click here to book


Syphilis is usually easier to treat in the early stages. If you have syphilis it is usually easy to get rid of it with a course of antibiotics, taken as either tablets or an injection.  It is important that the full course of antibiotics is taken and a follow-up appointment is made with your doctor to confirm that syhpilis is no longer present.

A person can become re-infected with syphilis even if they have had effective treatment for a previous infection. Treatment for past infection with syphilis does not make a person immune.

Living with HIV

Syphilis is harder to detect and harder to treat in people who are HIV positive. It is a serious infection that can be mistaken for other infections found in people living with HIV. While the symptoms of syphilis are usually similar, some HIV positive people develop severe organ and nerve damage much more rapidly than someone who is HIV negative. For some HIV Positive people, syphilis can decrease the CD4 count (therefore causing damage to the immune system) as well as increase the viral load.

Having syphilis also increases the risk of HIV transmission.


Using a condom reduces the chances of becoming infected with syphilis.  It is important to note, however, that a condom may not cover all of the sores or rashes in the affected areas, and direct skin contact may still result in transmission.

If a person has sex regularly with multiple partners, it is recommended that they have frequent STI check-ups.