Syphilis is back from the Dark Ages

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You probably thought it was something only pirates and Henry VIII had to deal with. Which was true, but in the last few years, Aotearoa has seen a dramatic rise in the number of syphilis cases. So, now it’s something you have to deal with too.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection of the penis, front hole, throat or anus, which can spread to different parts of the body through the bloodstream. If untreated, syphilis can severely damage your brain and other organs, and can be life-threatening.

Syphilis can be symptomless, so you might not even know you have it. Testing is free and easy though, so get tested every 3 months.

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Better safe than syphy, right?


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How do I know if I have syphilis?

Syphilis can go unnoticed with no visible or painful symptoms, so the best way is to get a test. NZAF provide rapid finger-prick tests that screen for syphilis. Don’t rely on experiencing symptoms to determine whether you have syphilis. If you’re sexually active then you’re at risk of syphilis.


Syphilis develops in stages and the symptoms will vary with each stage. You may not notice any symptoms for years.


If you do experience any symptoms you may initially notice a painless sore called a chancre where the bacteria entered the body – typically on your genitals, rectum or mouth. There may also be more than one chancre. 

The chancre usually develops about 3 weeks after exposure. Many people won't notice the chancre because it's usually painless, and hidden under the foreskin or inside the front-hole or rectum. The chancre will heal on its own within 3-6 weeks.


Once the chancre heals you may experience a rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, or elsewhere on your bodyIt is usually not itchy. Other possible symptoms include headaches, hair loss, sore throats, muscle aches, fevers and swollen lymph glands.

These signs and symptoms may disappear within a few weeks or repeatedly come and go.


During this stage of syphilis you won’t experience any symptoms at all. Instead, the syphilis may be damaging your internal organs. It stops being infectious to sexual partners after about two years.

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How do I prevent syphilis?

Syphilis is very infectious. The chance of acquiring syphilis is very high if your unknowing partner is in the earlier stages of their infection. Syphilis is passed through direct contact with the chancre during oral or penetrative sex.

Wearing a condom is always recommended and are very effective, however chancres do occur on areas that aren't covered by a condom. So it's still possible to get syphilis even if you are using a condom.

If you have syphilis once, the medication is not a vaccine for future possible infections. You can get syphilis again, and again.

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What will happen to my body if I have syphilis?

Following the stages of symptoms, if left untreated, syphilis remains in the body and can begin to damage your body’s internal organs. Commonly, syphilis will attack your brain, nerves, eyes, heart, liver, heart, bones, joints and blood vessels. In some people this damage may not show up for many years. 

Syphilis should be taken very seriously, complications can lead to dementia, blindness, deafness, paralysis or even death.


People with sexually transmitted syphilis or other genital ulcers have an increased risk of acquiring HIV. This is because the chancre can bleed easily, providing an easy way for HIV to enter your bloodstream during sexual activity. Remember that you may not notice the chancre as it may be hidden under the foreskin or inside the front-hole or rectum.

What happens once I'm diagnosed?

Some of the frequently asked questions:


Syphilis is very easy to treat and is typically done with an injection(s) of antibiotics. The duration of treatment depends on the stage of the infection and ranges between one day and three weeks. 


Please let your sexual partners know that they may have come into contact with syphilis — including your current partners and any other partners you've had since your last test. Treatment is often provided if a person has had sexual contact with someone who has syphilis to prevent it from developing in their body.

It may be an awkward conversation, but it could prevent syphilis from damaging their bodies and coming back around to you again. Since you can acquire syphilis more than once, getting as many people treated as possible reduces your chance of getting reinfected. 

If are also having sex with women, syphilis can be highly dangerous for unborn babies. There have been a number of infant deaths due to syphilis in Aotearoa in recent years.


Syphilis may be harder to detect and treat in people living with HIV. 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 people living with HIV can develop severe organ and nerve damage much more rapidly than HIV negative people. For some, syphilis can decrease the CD4 count. This can cause damage to the immune system as well as increase the viral load.


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