Congenital syphilis occurs when a baby is born already infected with the bacteria that cause syphilis . Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by a type of bacteria called a spirochete. Syphilis is passed from a mother to her baby during pregnancy. This is a potentially serious condition that requires care from your doctor. If untreated, a baby with congenital syphilis can have problems throughout life.

Spread of Syphilis During Pregnancy

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Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by the spirochete bacteria called Treponema pallidum . When a pregnant woman is infected with this bacteria, the bacteria may infect her baby either during pregnancy or birth.

Risk Factors

A baby has an increased risk of developing congenital syphilis if the mother:

  • Doesn’t receive prenatal care
  • Abuses drugs before or during pregnancy
  • Is involved in prostitution
  • Has unprotected sex


If your baby experiences any of these symptoms, do not assume it is due to congenital syphilis. These symptoms may be caused by other, less serious health conditions. If your baby experiences any one of them, see your physician. Potential symptoms include:

  • Irritability
  • Difficulty feeding
  • Poor weight gain (failure to thrive)
  • Fever
  • Severe pneumonia
  • Rash around the mouth, anus, genitals
  • Deformities of the nose, upper arm, shins
  • Tooth abnormalities
  • Neurological problems
  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Stillbirth or death in early infancy


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. Tests may include the following:

  • Blood tests of the mother and the baby to identify the presence of syphilis
  • Tests on the placenta
  • Spinal tap to look for the presence of syphilis in the spinal fluid
  • Eye exam
  • Bone x-rays


Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include the following:


Penicillin given to an infected mother during pregnancy can also treat the fetus. Penicillin is also given to babies who are born with congenital syphilis.


To help reduce your chances of passing on congenital syphilis, take the following steps:

  • Practice safer sex.
  • If you become pregnant, get good prenatal care immediately and throughout pregnancy.
  • If you think you may have a sexually transmitted disease, get tested, find out the results, and follow through on all your doctor’s recommendations.
  • Take your baby to all newborn and well-child checks, and follow your doctors recommendations for screening tests and immunizations.