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What Is Congenital Syphilis?

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sick baby

Story at-a-glance -

  • 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 labor and delivery.1 The infection usually enters the baby's blood system via the placenta.2 It can affect many babies, as evidenced by the 918 recorded cases of syphilis among newborns in the U.S. in 2017.3

How CS affects the baby's health depends on two factors: the length of time the mother has had syphilis and whether she was treated for the infection. If syphilis is left unaddressed, this significantly places the baby's health at risk.

It's estimated that nearly 40 percent of babies born to women with the infection may be stillborn or die from the infection. The affected woman may also give birth to a premature baby or a baby with a low birth weight, or experience a miscarriage. Babies born with CS are also prone to experiencing health issues like:

  • Deformed bones
  • Enlarged liver and spleen
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
  • Severe anemia (low blood cell count)
  • Brain and nerve problems
  • Meningitis
  • Skin rashes
  • Developmental delays
  • Seizures

It may be difficult to check for congenital syphilis because not all babies that have been infected will exhibit symptoms.4 According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, signs of the infection may show up in babies a few weeks or months after birth, at around 3 to 14 weeks of age, although some symptoms may not appear until the child is as old as 5 years.5

Can Babies With Syphilis Be Treated?

Multiple factors come into play when checking if a baby is affected by CS. They include the results of the mother's syphilis blood test and use of treatment (or lack thereof) for syphilis during pregnancy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that doctors can also test the baby's blood, perform a physical exam or suggest that the baby undergo tests like a spinal tap or an X-ray to confirm the diagnosis.

Babies born with CS can recover from it, provided that treatment is administered right away. Failure to have your baby checked may cause them to develop serious health issues in the first few weeks after birth or even multiple years afterward, and possibly raise their mortality risk. Babies who are treated for CS must receive follow-up care to ensure they have been healed and to make sure that the treatment worked.6

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, some techniques that pregnant women can do to prevent CS and other health problems are the following:7

Testing for syphilis at the first prenatal visit — If you are pregnant, ask your doctor or OB-GYN if you can be tested for syphilis during the first prenatal visit. You should also discuss new or unusual symptoms, what drugs or medicines she is currently using and if she has new or multiple sex partners.

Such information can help a doctor determine tests that you may need to take, or if you need to undergo retesting if you have already been affected with this condition before.

Working on reducing your syphilis risk before and during a pregnancy — If you're not pregnant yet but are planning to conceive, be open to your doctor about your syphilis risk, and discuss your sexual history and STD testing.

A pregnant woman who tests positive for syphilis must be treated immediately and not wait until the next prenatal visit. She, as well as her sexual partner, must undergo treatment for the infection.

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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