Congenital syphilis is a severe, disabling, and often life-threatening infection seen in infants. A pregnant mother who has syphilis can spread the infection through the placenta to the unborn infant.
Congenital syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum, which is passed from mother to child during fetal development or at birth. Up to half of all babies infected with syphilis while they are in the womb die shortly before or after birth.
Despite the fact that this disease can be cured with antibiotics if caught early, rising rates of syphilis among pregnant women in the United States have increased the number of infants born with congenital syphilis since 2013.
Most babies who are infected before birth appear normal. Over time, symptoms may develop. In babies younger than 2 years old, symptoms may include:
Symptoms in older infants and young children may include:
If the infection is suspected at the time of birth, the placenta will be examined for signs of syphilis. A physical examination of the infant may show signs of liver and spleen swelling and bone inflammation.
A routine blood test for syphilis is done during pregnancy. The mother may receive the following blood tests:
An infant or child may have the following tests:
Penicillin is the drug of choice for treating this problem. It may be given by IV or as a shot or injection. Other antibiotics may be used if the baby is allergic to penicillin.
Many infants who were infected early in the pregnancy are stillborn. Treatment of the expectant mother lowers the risk for congenital syphilis in the infant. Babies who become infected when passing through the birth canal have a better outlook than those who are infected earlier during pregnancy.
Health problems that can result if the baby isn't treated include:
Call your health care provider if your baby has signs or symptoms of this condition.
If you think that you may have syphilis and are pregnant (or plan to get pregnant), call your provider right away.
Safer sexual practices help prevent the spread of syphilis. If you suspect you have a sexually transmitted disease such as syphilis, seek medical attention right away to avoid complications like infecting your baby during pregnancy or birth.
Prenatal care is very important. Routine blood tests for syphilis are done during pregnancy. These help identify infected mothers so they can be treated to reduce the risks to the infant and themselves. Infants born to infected mothers who received proper antibiotic treatment during pregnancy are at minimal risk for congenital syphilis.
Reviewed By: Kimberly G. Lee, MD, MSc, IBCLC, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, Division of Neonatology, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.