Syphilis During Pregnancy

Woman dealing with syphilis during her pregnancy

Pregnancy can be a very fun and exciting time for expecting mothers and families, but along with that excitement can be many sources of stress, such as the state of your own health during  pregnancy. It is important to make your primary health care provider aware of any preexisting health issues or diseases.  Syphilis during pregnancy is serious but the good news is there are things you can do to reduce or avoid any problems for your growing baby.

Can syphilis hurt your baby while pregnant?

Syphilis is a contagious infection caused by Treponema pallidum and is primarily passed transmitted through sexual contact. However, if you are an expecting mother with syphilis congenital syphilis is also a possibility. Congenital syphilis results through transplacental transmission of the bacteria to the baby. Transmission is possible at any stage of pregnancy and can result in death, or multiple organ problems, it can also affect ears, eyes, liver, bone marrow, skin, bones, and heart. Syphilis also increases the chance of stillborn pregnancy. However, if you have syphilis, or suspect that you may syphilis, there are certain precautions you can take during your pregnancy to limit the chances of your baby contracting congenital syphilis.

Testing for Syphilis during Pregnancy

First, if you are undiagnosed but suspect that you may have syphilis while pregnant, it is necessary to get tested so that you and your primary health care provider can take the necessary precautions in regards to your prenatal health.

Some signs of syphilis during pregnancy or earlier include:

  • The development of a painful papule which develops into a clean, painless ulcer similar to a cancer sore, usually located on the genitals. The sore will often heal four to six weeks after appearing.
  • Two to ten weeks after the sore heals, secondary syphilis can begin to develop.  During secondary syphilis you may experience a rash, which may cover the whole body, pustular lesions, grayish, white wart-like growths, fever, headache, anorexia, weight loss, sore throat, and other flu like symptoms
  • The secondary syphilis becomes latent syphilis 1-2 months after onset. During latency the symptoms may disappear for several years.
  • After latency, you may enter late stage syphilis, in which you may experience neurological symptoms, and cardiovascular lesions

How to Treat Syphilis during Pregnancy

Antibiotics are used to treat syphilis during pregnancy

The good news is that syphilis is easily treated with antibiotics. However, it is important to take action early if you even remotely suspect that you might have been exposed to syphilis before or while you are pregnant. The rate of infection during pregnancy in cases of untreated syphilis approaches 100%, resulting in a 40% fetal death rate in infected infants.  For babies who survive, early signs of syphilis may occur during the first 2 years, and late signs during the first 2 decades of life. If recognized early, syphilis is easily treated with the appropriate antibiotics and you can go on to have a safe and happy pregnancy as long as you maintain your treatments and get regular care.

Prenatal Care and Syphilis during Pregnancy

If you have confirmed syphilis and are being treated regularly, this can decrease chances of the development of congenital syphilis in your baby. But you’ll also want to take other precautions to promote your health and the health of your baby.

  • Make sure your OBGYN is aware that you have syphilis.
  • Get prenatal care fast.
  • Get regular screenings and sonograms. This is legally required at the beginning of prenatal care in all states because it is considered absolutely essential for identification of syphilis in infants. This is very important for your baby’s safety.  If a baby does contract syphilis from its mother, early treatment is essential in lowering the risks of stillbirth and long-term effects of syphilis.
  • Continue your regular testing regimen , unless other treatment is recommended by your doctor, traditional treatment for syphilis prior to pregnancy is considered effective and safe during pregnancy as well

With adequate maternal treatment and good prenatal care the chances of your baby contracting syphilis is essentially eliminated. Even so, it is highly recommended that mothers infected with syphilis have their babies tested regularly until testing is conclusively negative.

Compiled from the following references:

 Harms, R. W. (2004). Mayo Clinic guide to a healthy pregnancy. New York: HarperResource.

Kliegman, R. (2007). Nelson textbook of pediatrics (18th ed.). Philadelphia: Saunders.

M.D., R. J. (1994). Lifestyle During Pregnancy. Mayo Clinic Complete Book of Pregnancy and Baby’s First Year . New York: William Morrow and Company Inc.,.