Pronounced: siff-ill-issEn Español (Spanish Version)
Congenital syphilis occurs when a baby is born already infected with the bacteria that cause syphilis . Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by a type of bacteria called a spirochete. Syphilis is passed from a mother to her baby during pregnancy. This is a potentially serious condition that requires care from your doctor. If untreated, a baby with congenital syphilis can have problems throughout life.
Spread of Syphilis During Pregnancy
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Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by the spirochete bacteria called Treponema pallidum . When a pregnant woman is infected with this bacteria, the bacteria may infect her baby either during pregnancy or birth.
A baby has an increased risk of developing congenital syphilis if the mother:
- Doesn’t receive prenatal care
- Abuses drugs before or during pregnancy
- Is involved in prostitution
- Has unprotected sex
If your baby experiences any of these symptoms, do not assume it is due to congenital syphilis. These symptoms may be caused by other, less serious health conditions. If your baby experiences any one of them, see your physician. Potential symptoms include:
- Difficulty feeding
- Poor weight gain (failure to thrive)
- Severe pneumonia
- Rash around the mouth, anus, genitals
- Deformities of the nose, upper arm, shins
- Tooth abnormalities
- Neurological problems
- Stillbirth or death in early infancy
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. 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
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include the following:
Penicillin given to an infected mother during pregnancy can also treat the fetus. Penicillin is also given to babies who are born with congenital syphilis.
To help reduce your chances of passing on congenital syphilis, take the following steps:
- Practice safer sex.
- If you become pregnant, get good prenatal care immediately and throughout pregnancy.
- If you think you may have a sexually transmitted disease, get tested, find out the results, and follow through on all your doctor’s recommendations.
- Take your baby to all newborn and well-child checks, and follow your doctors recommendations for screening tests and immunizations.
Centers for Disease Control
National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, National Institutes of Health
Caring for Kids
The Canadian Paediatric Society
Azimi P. Syphilis ( Treponema Pallidum) . In: Behrman R, ed. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics . 17th ed. St. Louis: W.B. Saunders; 1995: 978-982.
Gershon AA, Hotez PJ, Katz SL, eds. Krugman’s Infectious Diseases of Children . St. Louis, MO: Mosby, Inc; 2004: 574-588.
Last reviewed January 2008 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP
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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