During summer activities, it's bound to happen. But how dangerous is it to accidentally swallow a bug? Bobbi Pritt, M.D., a microbiologist, pathologist, and Director of the Clinical Parasitology Laboratory at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, discusses when swallowing an insect is harmless and which ones can be dangerous in The Wall Street Journal column entitled, "Burning Question."
According to Dr. Pritt, for the most part, eating a bug isn’t cause for worry. In general, your body will digest arthropods, which include arachnids like spiders, mites, and ticks, and insects such as gnats, flies, mosquitoes, fleas, and bedbugs, “just like any other food,” she says. “Eating a bug now and then probably won’t be a problem for most.”
However, certain insects that can sting or bite such as bees, wasps, fire ants, and some types of caterpillars, can be a problem if you swallow them. “Usually eating one will just cause mild pain and localized swelling if it bites or stings you,” Dr. Pritt says. But for people who are allergic, eating one that then stings you can lead to breaking out in hives; swelling of the face, throat, or mouth; difficulty breathing; dizziness; a drop in blood pressure; and even cardiac arrest. “If they don’t have an EpiPen, eating a bug they’re allergic to can be fatal,” she says.
Other types of bugs that don't sting, such as the cockroach, can lead to breathing difficulties when pieces of it are inhaled, especially in patients with asthma. And some arthropods passively carry bacteria on their feet and body. Flies for example can carry Shigella, which can cause severe and often bloody diarrhea. “If this happens, it usually resolves itself within a week, but if it’s severe, it may require antibiotics,” Dr. Pritt says.
Eating fleas is a common way to get the double-pored dog tapeworm, while ingesting beetles, even if they are dead, can transmit the dwarf tapeworm.