Protecting yourself and your baby from syphilis

February 25, 2022

Did you know that syphilis is a preventable sexually transmitted infection (also called STI)?  In 2019, the U.S. reported a growing number of STIs but the sharpest rise was in cases of syphilis among newborn babies.  In 2020, there were more than 2,000 cases of syphilis in babies – the most since 1994.

If you have syphilis, you can pass the infection to your baby during pregnancy or during vaginal birth if your baby has direct contact with a syphilis sore. When your baby is born with syphilis, it’s called congenital syphilis

The best way to protect your baby from congenital syphilis is to protect yourself from syphilis before and during pregnancy.  If you’re pregnant and have syphilis, get treatment right away.  

At your first prenatal care visit, your health care provider asks about your sexual history and does a blood test for STIs like syphilis. You can also get tested in your third trimester and after birth. 

Can syphilis during pregnancy cause problems for your baby?

Yes. Having syphilis can cause problems for your baby including: 

  • Being born too early. This is called premature birth. 
  • Being born too small. This is called low birthweight.
  • Miscarriage or stillbirth. Miscarriage is when a baby dies in the womb before 20 weeks of pregnancy.  Stillbirth is when a baby dies in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Problems with how the placenta and the umbilical cord support your baby during pregnancy. The placenta grows in your uterus (womb) and supplies your baby with food and oxygen through the umbilical cord
  • Neonatal death. This is when a baby dies in the first 28 days of life.
  • Congenital syphilis symptoms at birth.  These include fever, rashes, runny nose, problems with organs, problems with blood and other symptoms.  
  • Problems later in life such as problems with your baby’s eyes, hearing, bones and developmental delays. 

What are the signs and symptoms?

Signs and symptoms depend on how long you’ve been infected and when you get treatment.  Stages include: 

  • Primary syphilis. The first sign is one or a few small, hard, painless sores called chancres that usually develop in the genital or vaginal area. 
  • Secondary syphilis. Signs include sores and a rash on the palms of your hands and bottoms of your feet and other symptoms.
  • Latent syphilis. In this stage, symptoms go away, but you’re still infected. 
  • Late syphilis. If you don’t get treatment, this can cause problems later in life with your eyes, heart and brain.

How is syphilis treated?

Treatment usually is with an antibiotic called penicillin.  One shot can cure the infection, but if you have a later stage you may need more than one shot.  If you’re pregnant, have syphilis and get treated before 26 weeks of pregnancy, your baby is probably safe from infection. 

If your baby has congenital syphilis, they may also get treated with penicillin.  Get treatment for your baby right away to prevent complications. Take your baby to all their medical checkups to make sure treatment is working.

How can you protect yourself from syphilis?

Here’s what you can do:

  • Don’t have sex or have safe sex. Have sex with only one person who doesn’t have other sex partners. If your partner may have an STI, use a barrier method like a latex condom.  
  • Go to all your prenatal care checkups. 
  • Get tested and treated. 
  • Ask your partner to get tested and treated.