HALIFAX -- Public Health officials in Nova Scotia have declared an outbreak of syphilis in the province, saying the number of reported cases has more than doubled in two years.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority says 82 cases of syphilis were reported in the province last year, compared to 50 cases in 2018, and 38 cases in 2017.

The cases have been diagnosed in people aged 20 to 65 and up. While most cases have been reported in men, health officials say there appears to be an increase in reported cases among women, with females accounting for 20 per cent of cases in 2019, compared to 10 per cent in 2018, and 5 per cent in 2017. They say this trend is consistent with the pattern seen in other jurisdictions across Canada.

Syphilis is a bacterial sexually transmitted infection contracted through unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex. It can cause serious and permanent damage to the body -- or even death -- if left untreated.

Health officials say having unprotected sex increases the risk of contracting syphilis and other STIs, while safe-sex practices, such as using condoms and oral dams, can help prevent STIs like syphilis. They also recommend getting tested.

“Safer sex practices and getting tested for syphilis can help decrease the number of syphilis cases we are seeing in Nova Scotia currently,” said Dr. Gaynor Watson-Creed, Nova Scotia’s deputy medical officer of health, in a news release.

“Knowing your status for sexually transmitted infections, including syphilis, is really important for our health and also the health of others.”

Symptoms of syphilis may first appear 10 to 90 days after a person becomes infected, with the average period of time being 21 days. While some people may not have any symptoms, others may experience open sores at the point of infection, flu-like illness, muscle aches and pains, fatigue, or a rash on their chest, back, palms of their hands and bottoms of their feet.

Syphilis is treatable with antibiotics.

Watson-Creed says it’s important for people to be able to spot the signs of symptoms or syphilis, use protection for sexual activity, and get tested for syphilis and other STIs, if they are at risk.

“Being informed, taking action and protecting yourself are the best steps right now,” she said. “Please get tested if you think you are at risk.”

This isn’t the first time a syphilis outbreak has been declared in the province; an outbreak was declared in the Halifax area in 2009, hitting a peak in 2013 with 84 cases that year.

Anyone with questions or concerns about syphilis is urged to contact their health-care provider or local Public Health office.