What Is Congenital Syphilis?

sick baby

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  • Nearly 40 percent of babies born to women with untreated syphilis may be stillborn or die from the infection as a newborn
  • The doctor can also test the baby’s blood, perform a physical exam or suggest that the baby undergo other tests such as a spinal tap or an x-ray that can determine if the baby has CS

Congenital syphilis (CS) occurs when a mother with syphilis passes the infection to her child during pregnancy or during labor and delivery. The infection usually enters the baby’s blood system via the placenta.1

How CS affects the baby's health depends on two factors: the amount of time the mother had syphilis and if she got treated for the infection. Nearly 40 percent of babies born to women with untreated syphilis may be stillborn or die from the infection as a newborn. Other complications linked to CS include:2

  • Miscarriage
  • Giving birth to a premature baby
  • Giving birth to a baby with low birth weight

Meanwhile, babies born with CS are prone to complications like:

Deformed bones

Severe anemia (low blood cell count)

Enlarged liver and spleen

Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)

Brain and nerve problems like blindness or deafness

Meningitis

Skin rashes

Developmental delays

Seizures


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that not all babies with CS show symptoms at birth. However, having the baby treated as early as possible can be crucial, because if syphilis is left untreated, the baby can develop serious problems, usually in the first few weeks after birth or even years later. Babies who don’t get treated for CS can develop some of the aforementioned symptoms later on and die from the infection.

Can Babies With Syphilis Be Treated for the Disease?

If the baby has CS, a doctor should check for several factors, such as the results of the mother’s syphilis blood test and whether or not the mother received treatment for syphilis during the pregnancy. The doctor can also test the baby’s blood, perform a physical exam or suggest that the baby undergo other tests such as a spinal tap or an x-ray that can determine if the baby has CS.3

Fortunately, syphilis in babies can be treated, provided that treatment occurs right away to prevent serious health problems. After initial treatment, babies treated for CS must get follow-up care to ensure they have been healed and to make sure that the treatment worked.

How to Prevent Congenital Syphilis

An expectant mother should take precautionary measures to ensure she doesn’t have syphilis in the first place. According to the CDC, here are techniques that pregnant women can do to prevent CS and other health problems linked with this infection:4

Getting a syphilis test at the first prenatal visit: Pregnant women can ask their doctor or their OB-GYN if it’s possible to be tested for syphilis during the first prenatal visit. A pregnant woman should discuss any new or unusual physical symptoms she is experiencing, drugs or medicines that she is using and whether or not she has new or multiple sex partners.

Sharing these information will allow the doctor or the OB-GYN to make appropriate testing recommendations. If a woman has already been tested for syphilis in the past, retesting is important once she becomes pregnant.

Lowering risk for developing syphilis before and during a pregnancy: If a woman isn’t pregnant yet but is planning to, she should talk to her doctor honestly and openly about her syphilis risk, and discuss sexual history and STD testing.

If a pregnant woman tests positive for syphilis, immediate treatment is needed. Avoid waiting until the next prenatal visit to get treatment. Aside from the pregnant woman, sex partner/s must also receive adequate syphilis treatment. Unfortunately, patients can be re-infected with syphilis even after successful treatment, so taking preventive measures to avoid this STD can help lower the risk of developing a new infection at any stage of a person’s life.

MORE ABOUT SYPHILIS

Syphilis: Introduction

What Is Syphilis?

Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Congenital Syphilis

Syphilis Stages

Syphilis Causes

Syphilis Transmission

Syphilis Symptoms

Syphilis Treatment

Syphilis Testing

Syphilis Prevention

Syphilis FAQ

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