Should You Worry if You Accidentally Swallow an Insect?

It happens every day: You’re out for a run or motorboating on the lake and, whoosh, an insect lands in your mouth. The ick factor is high, but can it cause any real harm?



Article repurposed from

swallowing a bugOne expert, Bobbi Pritt, a microbiologist, pathologist and director of the Clinical Parasitology Laboratory at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., unearths when swallowing an insect is harmless, which ones can be dangerous and why you should cook your bugs first.

Summertime blues

Most people get bit or stung during the summer months by something, and many of us even eat a few critters. “I used to Rollerblade a lot, and I know that I’ve swallowed my fair share of insects,” Dr. Pritt says. “It’s gross, but it’s just a fact of life.”

For the most part, eating a bug isn’t cause for worry, she says. 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.”

When to worry

Certain bugs can be a problem if you swallow them, including insects that can sting or bite such as bees, wasps, fire ants and some types of caterpillars, says Dr. Pritt. “Usually eating one will just cause mild pain and localized swelling if it bites or stings you,” she 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.

Some people are allergic to certain proteins in arthropods that don’t sting. An example is the cockroach, which 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.

Parasite science

Eating fleas, perhaps by playing with the family dog or cat, is a common way to get the double-pored dog tapeworm, says Dr. Pritt, who writes the blog Creepy Dreadful Wonderful Parasites: A Parasitologist’s View of the World. “So keep your pets free of fleas and other bugs by bringing them in for regular checkups at the vet and use an insect repellent as directed,” she says.

Ingesting beetles, even if they are dead, can transmit the dwarf tapeworm. Dr. Pritt recommends inspecting dry cereals, flour and grains when you bring them home. To keep them safe after that, “store them in airtight containers,” she says.

Some people believe that swallowing an occasional live bug adds to their protein intake. While that may be true, there is negligible nutritional benefit, Dr. Pritt says. For those populations around the world who regularly ingest beetles, termites, ants, spiders and other arthropods, eating bugs can be an important source of protein. But, she notes, most of those people cook their critters before a meal, which generally kills any harmful bacteria and parasites. If you’re going to get serious about eating arthropods, says Dr. Pritt, “I would say it’s safest to cook your bugs first.”