Women and Children Deserve the Best Health Possible
Syphilis has increased among women in recent years. Disturbingly, it has also increased among pregnant women and newborns. Up to 40% of babies born to women with untreated syphilis may be stillborn, or die from the infection as a newborn.
What is congenital syphilis (CS)?
CS is a disease that occurs when a mother with syphilis passes the infection on to her baby during pregnancy.
How can CS affect my baby?
CS can have major health impacts on your baby. How CS affects your baby’s health depends on how long you had syphilis and if—or when—you got treatment for the infection. CS can cause
- Miscarriage (losing the baby during pregnancy),
- Stillbirth (a baby born dead),
- Prematurity (a baby born early),
- Low birth weight,
- Death shortly after birth.
What Women Can Do to Prevent Syphilis
Knowledge is key! Know what puts you at risk and how to avoid and/or lower those risks.
If you are sexually active, here are some ways to lower your chances of getting syphilis:
- Be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and has negative STD test results.
- Reduce your number of sex partners. It’s still important that you and your partner get tested, and that you share your test results with one another.
- Use latex condoms the right way for every sex act of vaginal, anal, and oral sex throughout the entire sex act (from start to finish). Condoms prevent the spread of syphilis by preventing contact with a sore. Sometimes sores can occur in areas not covered by a condom, so you could still get syphilis from contact with these sores, even if you are wearing a condom.
- The most reliable way to avoid getting syphilis or other STDs is to not have anal, vaginal, or oral sex.
Talk about it! Silence helps to fuel the spread of STDs.
- Have an honest and open talk with your health care provider about your sexual history and ask whether you should be tested for syphilis or other STDs.
- Talk with your partnerexternal icon about sex and STDs BEFORE you have sex.
If you test positive, syphilis can be treated with the right medicine from your health care provider. It’s also important that your sex partner(s) receive treatment. Even after you’ve been successfully treated, you can get syphilis again. That means you should continue to take actions that will lower your risk of getting infected again.
Additional steps are needed to protect you and your baby if you are pregnant.
What Pregnant Women Can Do to Protect Their Health and Their Baby’s Health
If you are pregnant, you should be tested for syphilis the first time you see your health care provider for health care during pregnancy. If you don’t get tested at your first visit, ask your health care provider about getting tested during a future checkup. They also may want to test you again later in your pregnancy and when your baby is born, depending on your risk for infection. There are other STD testing recommendations for pregnant women, too.
If you test positive for syphilis, you will need to be treated right away. Don’t wait for your next visit. The medicine used to cure syphilis is safe for you and your baby to receive during your pregnancy.
It’s also important that your sex partner(s) receive treatment.
What Health Care Providers Can Do to Protect Their Patients
You play a PIVOTAL role in preventing syphilis by keeping your patients—and, if they’re pregnant, their babies— safe, and by stopping further transmission of syphilis within the community.
For sexually active patients:
- Take a routine sexual historypdf icon to determine your patient’s risk and what tests may be needed.
- Talk with your patient about prevention methods.
There are specific recommendations for women who are pregnant or who have just given birth:
- Screen all pregnant women for syphilis at their first prenatal visit. Some women may be in the asymptomatic stage of syphilis. Women without symptoms can still spread the infection to their unborn babies.
- Pregnant women at high risk should be rescreened early in their third trimester and again at delivery. This includes women with a history of syphilis infection, incarceration, drug use, or multiple or concurrent partners, and those who live in areas with high rates of syphilis.
Before discharging any newborn from the hospital, make sure that the mother has been tested for syphilis at least once during her pregnancy or at delivery. If the test is positive, ensure that both mother and baby are evaluated appropriately before discharge and, if necessary, treated. Also, if a woman delivers a stillborn infant, she should be tested for syphilis.
Diagnosing and treating syphilis can be complicated. If you have questions, follow-up with your state or local health department or a local infectious disease doctor. We also have several other resources that can help.
If your patient is diagnosed with syphilis, take immediate action. Pregnant women diagnosed with syphilis should be treated with benzathine penicillin immediately. Treatment at least 30 days prior to delivery is likely to prevent congenital syphilis. All cases of syphilis and congenital syphilis should be reported to your state or local health department right away. CDC recommends reporting within 24 hours.
Always advise your patients to tell their sex partner(s) about their diagnosis and encourage them to get tested and treated to avoid reinfection.