Early symptoms of congenital syphilis

Cases of congenital syphilis – in which the otherwise sexually transmitted infection is passed on from mother to unborn child – saw a 38% spike between 2012 and 2014, according to the CDC. Last year alone 458 cases were reported. The early symptoms of congenital syphilis may appear at birth, develop in the first few weeks afterward, or occur years later.

Congenital syphilis symptoms


·         Failure to gain weight.

·         Failure to thrive.

·         Fever.

·         Irritability.

·         Saddle nose (no bridge to nose).

·         Rash in the mouth, genitals, or anus.

·         Rash that starts as small blisters on the palms and soles, and later changes to copper-colored, flat or raised rash on the face, palms, and soles.

·         Watery fluid discharged from the nose.

Older infants and young children

·         Hutchinson teeth (abnormal notched and peg-shaped teeth).

·         Pain in the bones.

·         Blindness.

·         Cloudy cornea.

·         Loss of hearing.

·         Deafness.

·         Gray, mucus-like patches on the anus and outer vagina.

·         Swelling of the joints.

·         Refusing to move a painful arm or leg.

·         Bone problem of the lower leg known as saber shins.

·         Scarring of the skin surrounding the mouth, genitals, and anus.


In addition to that, congenital syphilis can be deadly to the baby either during pregnancy (miscarriage), at birth (stillbirth), or shortly after birth. As many as 40% of infants born to women with untreated syphilis may be stillborn, or die from the infection as a newborn. But there are surely far worse fates than death, such as deformed bones, face deformity, severe anemia, enlarged liver and spleen, jaundice, nerve problems like blindness and deafness, and meningitis – all of which are possible complications of congenital syphilis.

All pregnant women should be tested for syphilis during the first pre-natal visit, or at a follow-up visit. A mother-to-be may have syphilis and not know it; the only way to make sure either way is to be tested – and the sooner the better should the result be positive. Pre-natal tests include:

·         Fluorescent treponemal antibody absorbed test (FTA-ABS).

·         Rapid plasma reagin (RPR).

·         Venereal disease research laboratory test (VDRL).

If congenital syphilis is suspected at birth, the placenta can be checked for traces of syphilis. Furthermore, the infant or child may undergo the following tests:

·         Physical examination to check for signs of liver and spleen swelling and bone inflammation.

·         Bone x-ray.

·         Dark-field examination to detect syphilis bacteria under a microscope.

·         Eye examination.

·         Lumbar puncture.

Syphilis – congenital and otherwise – is not only treatable with penicillin (treatment should start immediately after the condition is detected) but also preventable. The best way to prevent your baby from being born with syphilis is to remain syphilis-free yourself.

Preventing syphilis

·         Use condoms every time you engage in sexual intercourse.

·         Practice monogamous sex with a partner who has been tested and has received negative syphilis results.

·         Keep in mind that sometimes syphilis sores occur in areas not covered by a condom, and contact with these sores can still transmit syphilis.

·         Talk to your doctor about how to reduce the risk of getting syphilis before, during, and after pregnancy.

Related: Early symptoms of syphilis