Why syphilis infections in women are on the rise

Rates of syphilis are climbing. Here’s what you need to know about this nasty sexually transmitted infection. 

In the past few years, the number of Australians diagnosed with syphilis has increased at a worrying rate.

In March, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly alerted clinicians across to a rise in cases, particularly in women aged 15 to 44.

Women in this age group have experienced a 219 per cent increase in rates of syphilis between 2015 and 2020.

Why are rates of syphilis rising?

Syphilis is a sexually transmissible infection (STI) that is passed from person to person during sex, or through skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the bacterial infection.

In past decades, syphilis was more prevalent in men who had sex with men and in young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but it is increasingly affecting the heterosexual community.

“The recent increase may be due to younger people being less likely to use condoms,” Dr Amy Moten, of Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, says.

“The rise of online dating and dating apps may also be playing a role.”

Symptoms of syphilis

Almost half of syphilis cases show no symptoms but signs can include a painless ulcer at the infection site, says Dr Dominique Baume, of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health.

“About four to eight weeks after infection, when the bacteria has spread through the body, this can cause a rash that affects the palms and soles,” she says.

Swollen lymph nodes, joint pain and flu-like symptoms can also be potential signs of syphilis.

Risks of syphilis

Left undiagnosed and untreated, syphilis can damage the brain, heart, eyes and spine.

Worryingly, during pregnancy, syphilis can pass from mother to her unborn baby.

This can potentially cause miscarriage, stillbirth or a baby being born with serious heart, brain and lung damage.

“All pregnant women get a blood test for syphilis as part of their ante-natal care, but if you have sex during pregnancy with another partner, or your partner has sex with another partner, that can lead to a new infection of syphilis,” Dr Moten says.

How to prevent and treat syphilis

Reduce the risks of syphilis by using condoms and dental dams during sexual activity and have a regular sexual health check-up with your GP, including a blood test to check for syphilis, says Dr Baume.

The good news is that syphilis is easily treated.

“Syphilis can be simply treated with a penicillin injection, which will prevent significant later health problems,” Dr Baume says.

Written by Sarah Marinos.