Syphilis and Pregnancy

A fairly easy sexually transmitted disease to cure, syphilis can cause serious health problems in both you and your child if it is not treated. If you are pregnant and infected with syphilis, learn what you can do to protect yourself and your baby.

What is Syphilis?
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is generally contracted through sexual intercourse or close, intimate contact. The Treponoma pallidum bacteria cause syphilis. More than 6000 cases of syphilis are reported in the United States alone each year. Syphilis develops in three stages. Primary syphilis is characterized by an open sore called a chancre, which may appear internally or externally, typically on the genitals. If untreated, the disease can progress to secondary syphilis and tertiary syphilis. You may experience syphilis symptoms including: fever, sore throat, a rash, hair loss and swollen glands. In its final stage, syphilis can cause dementia, blindness and damage to the nervous system.

Syphilis and Pregnancy
Syphilis is extremely dangerous for your unborn child. It can be transmitted to your baby through vaginal birth and possibly through a cesarean section, although a c-section may reduce the risk of transmission. It can also be passed to your child during your pregnancy.

Syphilis that is transmitted to a fetus during pregnancy is called congenital syphilis. More than 500 000 cases of congenital syphilis occur worldwide every year. An additional 500 000 fetuses infected with syphilis are miscarried or stillborn every year. If you are pregnant and infected with syphilis, your baby can contract the disease through the placenta that nourishes it. It is important that you get a syphilis test early in your pregnancy in order to prevent passing the disease to your baby.

Symptoms of Congenital Syphilis
Congenital syphilis can have some very severe symptoms, but these may not appear right away. Babies born with congenital syphilis may exhibit no symptoms for as many as eight months after birth. Babies infected with the syphilis bacteria typically experience skin rashes or small sores on their bodies. If your baby is infected, he may also have yellowish skin (jaundice), a bloody and runny nose, swollen arms and legs, and slimy spots in the mouth. Your baby may also have a weakened or horse cry. Babies infected with the disease can also suffer from anemia or contract pneumonia at an early stage in life.

If your baby goes untreated for syphilis, serious physical problems can occur. Chronic syphilis can cause extensive damage to your baby’s bones, teeth, vision, hearing, and mental development. Your baby can develop brain seizures and experience delayed mental development and slowed physical growth. 12% of newborns infected with congenital syphilis eventually die from the disease.

Testing and Treatment
If you are pregnant, it is important for you to get a syphilis test. A simple blood test will be performed to check for the bacteria that cause the disease. If you test positive for the syphilis bacteria, treatment before the 16th week of pregnancy can prevent you from passing the illness to your baby. More than 98% of babies do not contract the syphilis bacteria if their mother has been treated before the fourth month. If you are in the early stages of the disease, your baby is at a much higher risk of contracting congenital syphilis. 50% of pregnancies in women with syphilis will be affected during these early stages. Early treatment is the best option for you and your baby.

Treatment is quite simple before the fourth month. A single penicillin injection can prevent your baby from becoming infected. If you are allergic to penicillin, antibiotics are also available. Treatment after the fourth month is not as effective. Between 40% and 70% of women with late-treated or untreated syphilis will give congenital syphilis to their child. After birth, if your baby tests positive for syphilis, he will be given penicillin injections to fight the bacteria. Repeated syphilis tests will be performed to check whether or not the treatment has worked.

Do you have syphilis? Visit our Pregnancy Complications forum to discuss your concerns with other women.

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