Congenital Syphilis

  • 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 medical care. 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 caused by a specific bacteria. 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 include:
    • Rash around the mouth, anus, and genitals
    • Poor weight gain
    • Difficulty feeding
    • Fever
    • Deformities of the nose, upper arm, shins
    • Tooth abnormalities
    • Abdominal swelling
    • Vision problems
    • Hearing problems
    • Irritability
  • Diagnosis

    You will be asked about your child's symptoms and medical history. A physical exam may be done.
    Bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with:
    • Blood tests of the mother and the baby
    • Tests on the placenta
    • Spinal tap to look for the presence of syphilis in the spinal fluid
    Images may be taken of your child's bodily structures. This can be done with x-rays.
    Your child's vision may be tested. This can be done with an eye exam.
  • Treatment

    Syphilis is treated with an antibiotic called penicillin. It may be given to the mother during pregnancy. The medication 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 check ups. Follow your doctor's recommendations for screening tests and immunizations.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


    Health Canada

    SickKids—The Hospital for Sick Children


    Congenital syphilis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated January 16, 2014. Accessed May 29, 2014.

    Syphillis CDC fact sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Available at: Updated April 1, 2014. Accessed May 29, 2014.

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