Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that may occur due to unprotected sex with an infected partner. Syphilis in pregnancy may lead to vertical transmission to the fetus. Further, two of five babies born to mothers with a syphilis infection may experience fatal complications. Therefore, syphilis in pregnancy must be treated promptly with penicillin, which is the drug of choice for treating syphilis in pregnancy (1).
Read on to learn about the symptoms, complications, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of syphilis during pregnancy.
Causes And Risk Factors For Syphilis In Pregnancy
The bacterium Treponema pallidum causes maternal syphilis and can be contracted through direct contact with syphilis sore in the mouth, penis, vagina, or anus during sex. A pregnant woman may transfer her infection to the infant during pregnancy or vaginal delivery through contact with syphilis sores (congenital syphilis), leading to adverse outcomes (1) (2) (3).
The risk factors for contracting syphilis in pregnancy are (4)
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Drug use, which may be associated with transactional sexual favors
- Unstable housing or homelessness, which may compel women to receive housing or other support for sexual favors
Signs And Symptoms Of Syphilis During Pregnancy
According to the Centers for Disease Control And Prevention (CDC), a syphilis infection is followed by an asymptomatic incubation period of one to three months (5). During this time, the infection may present visible or dormant signs depending on the treatment undertaken. If left untreated, the infection may persist without visible signs.
The symptoms of syphilis in pregnancy differ depending on the stage of the infection (4).
Primary syphilis might manifest through a chancre, a hard and painless sore in the vagina.
Secondary syphilis may present some of these symptoms a few days after contracting the infection:
- Rashes in the palms and feet
- Lymph infection
- Hair loss
- Weight loss
- Muscle ache
Latent syphilis may not show any visible signs and symptoms, although the infection lingers in the body and may cause adverse outcomes.
Late or tertiary syphilis may have progressive symptoms. It might affect several vital organs and create complications if left untreated.
Complications Of Syphilis Infection During Pregnancy
Complications affecting the outcome of pregnancy
- Miscarriage: There is an increased risk of miscarriage before 20 weeks of gestation.
- Stillbirth or neonatal death: Untreated infections in pregnant women lead to fetal death in almost 40% of cases.
- Preterm delivery: Women undergoing syphilis treatment have a high risk of premature labor.
- Low birth weight: The fetus might have reduced growth and weigh less than five pounds and eight ounces.
- Placenta and umbilical cord issues: The placenta and umbilical cord may become swollen, affecting the oxygen supply to the fetus.
Complications for the baby
The risk of syphilis infection to the growing fetus depends on the stage of maternal syphilis infection during pregnancy. According to the CDC, the highest fetal infection rate is during the primary and secondary stages.
- Severe anemia
- Enlarged liver and spleen
- Skin rashes
- Vision problems, including blindness
- Cardiac complications
- Neurological complications such as seizures, movement disorders
- Muscle problems
- Lifelong health issues
Diagnosis Of Syphilis During Pregnancy
- Direct testing involves the identification of the causative bacteria using darkfield microscopy or finding genetic traces of the bacteria using polymerase chain reaction (PCR). However, these tests are unpopular due to the unavailability of sophisticated instruments and skilled personnel.
- Serological tests use antibodies to find the causative organism in the body and are more widely used due to the ready availability of reagents and instruments.
- A non-treponemal test involves finding dead bacteria or its fragments using specific antibodies.
- Treponemal antibody testing identifies the bacterial protein using specific antibodies. However, such positive tests may require another non-treponemal test to identify the infection quantitatively and determine the treatment regime.
Treatment For Syphilis During Pregnancy
Syphilis in pregnant women is usually treated with penicillin (2). According to the CDC, the dosage depends on the level of bacterial load in the body and the stage of infection (4). The entire course of the antibiotic must be completed even if no symptoms are visible.
If syphilis is diagnosed in the second half of pregnancy, fetal sonographic evaluation and prenatal syphilis screening are conducted to understand the risk of congenital syphilis and fetal distress. In this case, the second dose of antibiotic is prescribed as an effective treatment to reduce the risk of perinatal death. A doctor will conduct a blood test after the treatment to confirm if you are free of the infection.
If diagnosed with syphilis, abstain from further sexual conduct until a doctor declares it safe, and inform any sex partners from the past two years as they might have it as well. Following the treatment, safe sex is recommended as it is possible to contract the infection again. Conducting the diagnostic tests at regular intervals is also a good practice.
Prevention Of Syphilis In Pregnancy
- Use latex condoms during sex.
- Adhere to a monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested.
- Attend all the prenatal care checkups and do the serological tests despite showing no visible symptoms of syphilis infection.
Syphilis is a contagious but preventable disease. Pregnant women with syphilis may transfer the infection to the growing fetus, causing serious complications. Understanding the symptoms, complications, and treatment plan can help in getting optimal protection against the disease. If you note the development of any syphilis symptoms, consult your healthcare provider and get tested.
- Syphilis in pregnancy.
- Syphilis – CDC Fact Sheet.
- Syphilis During Pregnancy.
- Diagnostic tests for syphilis.