Health Library

Congenital Syphilis

Pronounced: siff-ill-iss

Definition

Syphilis is an infection caused by bacteria. Congenital syphilis is an infection that a baby is born with. In this case, the infection is passed from a mother to her baby.

This is a potentially serious condition that requires care from your doctor. If untreated, a baby with congenital syphilis can have problems throughout life. It can also cause a stillbirth or death in early infancy.

Spread of Syphilis During Pregnancy

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Causes

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease. It is caused by the bacteria called Treponema pallidum . This infection can pass to a baby through an infected mother. The baby may be infected during pregnancy or the birth process.

Risk Factors

A baby has an increased risk of developing congenital syphilis if the mother:

  • Does not receive prenatal care
  • Abuses drugs before or during pregnancy
  • Is involved in prostitution
  • Has unprotected sex
Symptoms

Symptoms of congenital syphilis in infants include:

  • Rash around the mouth, anus, genitals
  • Poor weight gain
  • Difficulty feeding
  • Fever
  • Severe pneumonia
  • Deformities of the nose, upper arm, shins
  • Tooth abnormalities
  • Neurological problems
  • Hepatosplenomegaly
  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Irritability
Diagnosis

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam may be done. Tests may include the following:

  • Blood tests of the mother and the baby to identify the presence of syphilis
  • Tests on the placenta
  • Spinal tap to look for the presence of syphilis in the spinal fluid
  • Eye exam
  • Bone x-rays
Treatment

Syphilis is treated with an antibiotic called penicillin. It may be given to the mother during pregnancy. The medicine in pregnancy will treat the child as well the mother. Penicillin will also be given to infected babies after birth.

Other steps may be needed if your child has complications from syphilis. Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan.

Prevention

To help reduce your chances of spreading congenital syphilis, take the following steps:

  • Practice safe sex.
  • If you become pregnant, get good prenatal care throughout pregnancy.
  • If you think you may have a sexually transmitted disease, get tested. Follow through on all your doctor’s recommendations.
  • Take your baby to all newborn and well-child checks. Follow your doctor's recommendations for screening tests and immunizations.

RESOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control
http://www.cdc.gov

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
http://www.niaid.nih.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Caring for Kids
The Canadian Paediatric Society
http://www.caringforkids.cps.ca

Health Canada
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

References:

Congenital syphilis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php . October 24, 2011. Accessed July 22, 2013.

Congenital Syphilis treatment guidelines. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/std/treatment/2006/congenital-syphilis.htm . Updated April 12, 2007. Accessed July 22, 2013.

Syphillis CDC fact sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/std/syphilis/STDFact-Syphilis.htm . Updated February 11, 2013. Accessed July 22, 2013.



Last reviewed July 2013 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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