Congenital syphilis is a severe, disabling, and often life-threatening infection seen in infants. A pregnant mother who has syphilis can spread the disease through the placenta to the unborn infant.
Congenital syphilis is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, which is passed from mother to child during fetal development or at birth. Nearly half of all children 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.
Symptoms in newborns may include:
Symptoms in older infants and young children may include:
If the disorder 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 used to treat all forms of syphilis.
Many infants who were infected early in the pregnancy are stillborn. Treatment of the expectant mother lowers the risk of congenital syphilis in the infant. Babies who become infected when passing through the birth canal have a better outlook.
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 anticipate becoming pregnant), call your health care provider immediately.
Safer sexual practices may help prevent syphilis. If you suspect you have a sexually transmitted disease such as syphilis, seek medical attention immediately to avoid complications like infecting your baby during pregnancy or birth.
Prenatal care is very important. A routine blood test for syphilis is done during pregnancy. This identifies infected mothers and allows them to be treated to reduce the risks to the infant and themselves. Infants born to infected mothers who received proper penicillin treatment during pregnancy are at minimal risk for congenital syphilis.
Congenital lues; Fetal syphilis
Patterson MJ, Davies HD. Syphilis (Treponema pallidum). In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 210.
Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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