Living with HIV

Syphilis

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that can have very serious complications when left untreated. It can progress much faster in people living with HIV but it is simple to cure with the right treatment.

An increased HIV viral load (the amount of virus in your blood) means a greater risk to your health and also makes contracting syphilis more likely if you are having regular sex with multiple partners or you suspect your partner to be having sex outside your relationship. Syphilis can also increase HIV viral load in semen, pre-cum, vaginal fluid and anal mucus because the immune system is fighting both HIV and syphilis.

Syphilis is transmitted through:

  • any sexual practice where there is skin-to-skin (most commonly in practices in the lead up to sex);
  • oral sex;
  • vaginal sex; and
  • anal sex.

Symptoms can often be mild or asymptomatic, which means you can pass on the infection without knowing you have it.

Testing

There is currently a rise in syphilis rates in Victoria among men who have sex with men. It is highly recommended that all people who are having casual sex or sex with multiple partners have a screening for syphilis every three months. Women should also be tested for syphilis if they are considering falling pregnant. Screening/testing is done with a simple blood test which your S100 Prescriber GP can arrange for you. This testing can happen outside of regular HIV management and care. Depending on your location, results can usually be received within a week.

Treatment

If caught early, syphilis can be cured with antibiotics; usually a single dose of penicillin (alternative treatments are available to those allergic to penicillin) is extremely effective in treating the early stages of syphilis. Follow-up blood tests are recommended at 1, 3, 6, 12 and 24 months after treatment.

Progression of Syphilis if left untreated

Syphilis typically follows a progression of stages that can last for weeks, months, or even years. It can be harder to treat in its later stages. This is why it is important to test and treat early. Possible symptoms that can appear if syphilis is left untreated are:

  • Flat, red skin rash on back, chest, hands and feet
  • Fever
  • Swelling of the glands in groin and armpits
  • Genital rash
  • Hair loss
  • Tiredness

If untreated symptoms may come and go for up to two years and may can cause serious problems with several organs including the brain and heart. For women, untreated syphilis can impact upon the viability of the foetus during pregnancy. Early latent syphilis is highly contagious in vaginal fluid, semen and blood.

Referrals

There are four S100 Prescriber clinics in the Melbourne metropolitan area.  There are also individual GPs located in Melbourne and regional Victoria where you can have a safe and confidential conversation about getting tested for syphilis.

Northside Clinic
370 St Georges Rd. North Fitzroy
03 9485 7700

Prahran Market Clinic 
Pran Central, Mezzanine Level
Cnr of Commercial Rd and Chapel St, Prahran
03 9514 0888

Centre Clinic St Kilda, VAC
77 Fitzroy St. St Kilda (Cnr of Fitzroy St & Loch St)
03 9525 5866

Family Planning Victoria
Ground floor, 901 Whitehorse Rd, Box Hill (near Box Hill Station)
03 9257 0100 (or free call 1800 013 952 FREE)

Melbourne Sexual Health Clinic
580 Swanston St. Carlton
03 9341 6200

Regional and rural locations 
Contact us to find out where your closest STI screening site is.

Living Positive Victoria’s position on syphilis

Living Positive Victoria is strongly in favour of on-going, regular testing and recommends the continuation and expansion of public health campaigns to raise awareness of syphilis. The position paper responds to the current Victorian syphilis among men who have sex with men. Read more about our position on syphilis here:

LPV Syphilis Position Paper