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Insect Bites During Pregnancy: Complications And Treatment

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Insect bites are usually irritating and sometimes, harmful too. Bites and stings from common insects are mostly harmless and may result in minor irritation to the skin. But there is no study on the possible effects of insect bites in pregnancy, or how a sting or bite may affect the pregnancy or the unborn child. Hence, you must seek medical attention after an insect bite for proper diagnosis and treatment.

In this MomJunction post, we talk about what can lead to insect bites, their symptoms, and how you can protect yourself from them.

Are Insect Bites Dangerous When Pregnant?

Insect bites may not be dangerous all the time. In some cases, the bite may get infected, causing either allergic reactions or serious illnesses (such as malaria and Lyme disease). Bites and stings from certain mosquitoes, flies, ticks, spiders, ants, wasps, bees, yellow jackets and hornets usually lead to a small, reddish lump or bump on the skin, and could occasionally be itchy and painful.

In some cases, a severe allergic reaction to the bite can lead to symptoms, such as trouble during swallowing, breathing, feeling of dizziness, lightheadedness, swelling of the face and mouth (1). These symptoms warrant immediate medical treatment.

If an insect bite leads to a severe allergic reaction or is causing discomfort, check with your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

Causes Of Insect Bites During Pregnancy

Pregnant women can be bitten by a variety of insects, depending on their exposure to the insects’ habitats. Bites can potentially be from midges, fleas, lice, mosquitoes, and bed bugs. Also, arachnids (such as ticks, mites, and spiders) though not strictly insects, can cause bites (3).

You may be at higher risk of insect bites if you:

  • Spend time or work outdoors
  • Do not protect yourself properly when visiting gardens, parks or other spaces with thick vegetation
  • Live in warmer climates
  • Are living in an environment infested with insects (4)
  • Forget the use of tick or flea prevention medicines for pets

Symptoms Of Insect Bites During Pregnancy

Primarily, you may notice a small puncture wound in the skin. The reaction you have to the bite could determine the type of insect you were bitten by (5).

In some cases, you are likely to experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Rash or redness
  • Pain in the affected area
  • Swelling
  • Itching
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Heat in and around the bitten area

Some may experience an allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) that could lead to symptoms such as:

  • Fever
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Difficulty in breathing and swallowing
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Muscle spasms
  • Loss of consciousness

Some of these symptoms, especially anaphylactic shock after a bee sting or insect bite, are severe and warrant immediate medical attention.

If you feel these allergic symptoms or any other flu-like symptoms, your doctor may suggest some tests to diagnose the disease or infection you may have developed from the bite.

Treatment For Insect Bites In Pregnancy

Early treatment may help mitigate the symptoms and after-effects of insect bites in pregnancy. Most bites and stings could be treated at home, in case the reaction is mild.

The foremost step for bites and stings could be removing the sting, hairs, or tick in the skin. Do not use any sharp object or tweezers as it could increase the amount of venom released from the bite (3).

  • Apply a cold compress: If you are aware of the insect bite, wash the area with water immediately. Applying an ice pack may reduce the pain and swelling.
  • Anti-itch creams and ointments: Calamine lotion, Benadryl, hydrocortisone cream or ointment, or antihistamine tablets could help relieve itching.
  • Painkillers: Over the counter medications, including acetaminophens (paracetamol) or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen) may be prescribed for pain and inflammation associated with insect bites (1).
  • First-aid: If the person has a severe reaction and has difficulty breathing, you may have to begin CPR (Cardiopulmonary resuscitation). Loosen the clothes, lay them down to the side, and perform CPR until paramedics arrive (3). You may also use theEpiPen from the person’s emergency kit if they have one.

Epinephine drug (Adrenalin, EpiPen, Brotinin) is the drug of choice for shock, angioedema, airway obstruction, bronchonspasm and ulticaria in severe anaphylactoid reactions.

Complications Of Insect Bites During Pregnancy

Some insect bites can spread diseases with a few mild symptoms. However, little is known about such complications during pregnancy.

  • In rare cases, mosquitoes can pass the West Nile Virus (WNV) to humans. This viral infection might cause severe symptoms such as fever, tiredness, headache, swollen glands, body aches, or a skin rash on the tummy. CDC gathered data of 70 pregnant women who had WNV in 2003, and the risk appeared to be comparatively low in fetuses (6). There were only a few reported cases of newborns with WNV (7).
  • Some tick bites may carry Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium that causes Lyme disease. In this case, you are likely to experience symptoms such as fever, stiff neck, muscle or joint pains, facial paralysis, and heart palpitations. It could pass on to the fetus too, although it happens rarely. However, early treatment makes it less of a risk during pregnancy (8).
  • Preterm deliveries have occurred despite tokolysis after insect bites.
  • Mortality associated with insect bites is from hypersensitivity reactions either anaphylactic (IgE) or anaphylactoid (non IgE mediated).
     

Are Pregnant Women More Prone To Mosquito Bites?

According to a study published in the British Medical Journal, malaria-carrying mosquitoes (Anopheles gambiae) find pregnant women to be more attractive than non-pregnant women. Around 36 pregnant women were compared with 36 non-pregnant women of Gambia, and pregnant women attracted twice the number of mosquitoes than their non-pregnant counterparts.

One observation was that women at advanced pregnancy state exhale 21% more air than non-pregnant women. Mosquitoes are therefore attracted to extra moisture and carbon dioxide in the exhaled breath.

Another observation was the abdomen temperature, which was likely to be 0.7C hotter in pregnant women. Volatile substances releasing from the warm skin surface, therefore, attracted the insects (2).

This is just one speculation and could be a reason why insects find pregnant women more attractive.

Preventing Insect Bites During Pregnancy

Precautions you can take to lower your risk of insect bites and stings are listed next (9) (10):

  • Wear fully covered clothes. Light-colored clothing appears to be less attractive to many biting insects. If you are outside during mosquito or tick-active hours, cover your skin by putting on long sleeves, long trousers, shoes, and socks.
  • Periodic pest control may eliminate nests and minimize reproduction of biting insects.
  • Avoid strongly scented products such as perfumes, deodorants, soaps, and shampoos as the odor can attract insects.
  • Avoid going out at dawn and dusk as mosquitoes, and other insects are highly active. Close the doors and windows around this time.
  • Stay away from flowering plants, ponds and swamps, compost, and rubbish areas as insects nest or congregate in these areas.
  • Consider using mosquito nets around your bed.
  • Have your pets regularly treated for fleas.
  • Using insect repellents containing DEET (N, N-ethyl-m-toluamide, or m-DET) could help.
  • Next, we answer some queries about insect bites and pregnancy.

Frequently Asked Questions

1 Can insect bites harm my unborn baby? 

Some insect bites could transfer viruses from mother to the unborn baby, causing complications. There is one evidence of Zika virus-carrying mosquitoes. According to the CDC, the Zika virus is found to infect the mother and leads to microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects in the baby. Microcephaly is a birth defect where a baby’s head grows smaller than expected and causes developmental delays (11).

2. Can insect bites cause miscarriage? 

Although not common, bites and stings from creatures that have venom are likely to cause miscarriage. Zika virus, which is transmitted through mosquitoes, may cause problems such as miscarriage, stillbirth, and birth defects (12).

3. Is insect repellent safe during pregnancy? 

Insect repellents registered by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) are considered to be safe and effective for pregnant women. Those containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, lemon eucalyptus oil, and para-menthane-diol could help. You should remember to use them carefully as directed on the labels. Avoid using them near eyes, mouth, nose, ears, and cut skin (13).

Insect bites might be annoying, but every bite may not lead to serious complications. The severity of any insect bite depends on the type of insect that bit you and your sensitivity to it. Check with your doctor for the best medical advice. Following preventive measures is known to be an effective way to lower the risks of being bitten by insects.

References:

1. Insect bites and stings; NHS (2019)
2. Roger Dobson; Mosquitoes prefer pregnant women; BMJ (2000)
3. Insect bites and stings; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Institutes of Health (2017)
4. Insect Bites and Stings; Winchester Hospital | Beth Israel Lahey Health
5. Insect bites and stings; healthdirect.gov (2018)
6. Evaluation of Infants Born to Mothers with West Nile Virus Infection; American Academy of Family Physicians (2004)
7. Mother to Baby during Pregnancy, Delivery, or Breast Feeding; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018)
8. Ticks and Lyme Disease; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
9. Don’t Let the Bugs Bite! — Tips for Bug Bite Prevention & Treatment During Pregnancy; Lamaze International
10. Mosquitoes, Ticks & Other Arthropods; CDC (2019)
11. Facts about Microcephaly; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019)
12. Zika Virus; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019)
13. Insect Repellent: What Pregnant & Breastfeeding Women Need to Know; California Department of Public Health

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