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Alternative NamesCongenital lues; Fetal syphilis
Definition Return to top
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.
Causes Return to top
Congenital syphilis is caused by the organism Treponema pallidum, which is passed from mother to child during fetal development or 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 recently increased the number of infants born with congenital syphilis.
Symptoms Return to top
Symptoms in newborns may include:
Symptoms in older infants and young children may include:
Exams and Tests Return to top
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.
The mother may receive the following blood tests:
An infant or child may have the following tests done:
Treatment Return to top
Penicillin is used to treat all forms of syphilis.
Outlook (Prognosis) Return to top
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.
Possible Complications Return to top
When to Contact a Medical Professional Return to top
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.
Prevention Return to top
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 a fetus 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.Update Date: 10/8/2007 Updated by: Deirdre O’Reilly, MD, MPH, Neonatologist, Division of Newborn Medicine, Children’s Hospital Boston and Instructor in Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts. Review Provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.