Maternal heat exposure and neural tube defects

JAMA. 1992 Aug 19;268(7):882-5.


Objective: To determine if exposure to hot tub, sauna, fever, or electric blanket during early pregnancy was associated with an increased risk for neural tube defects (NTDs).

Design: Prospective follow-up study.

Setting: Mostly private obstetric practices, primarily in New England.

Participants: A cohort of 23,491 women having serum alpha-fetoprotein screening or an amniocentesis were identified. Complete exposure and outcome information was available for 97% of these women.

Outcome measures: Relative risks (RRs) were used to compare incidence of NTD in those exposed to heat with those who were not exposed to any heat. Crude RRs were calculated directly from the data. Unconfounded RRs were calculated using logistic regression.

Results: Women reporting any heat exposure (sauna, hot tub, fever, or electric blanket) in early pregnancy had a crude risk of their fetuses developing NTD of 1.6 (95% CI [confidence interval], 0.9 to 2.9). Women reporting exposure to sauna, hot tub, or fever in early pregnancy had a crude risk of their fetuses developing NTD 2.2 times that of women without heat exposure (95% CI, 1.2 to 4.1). For hot tub use, the crude RR was 2.9 (95% CI, 1.4 to 6.3); for sauna, 2.6 (95% CI, 0.7 to 10.1); for fever, 1.9 (95% CI, 0.8 to 4.1); and for electric blanket, 1.2 (95% CI, 0.5 to 2.6). Multivariate adjusted RRs for individual heat sources, after controlling for maternal age, folic acid supplements, family history of NTD, and exposure to other heat sources, were for hot tub use, 2.8 (95% CI, 1.2 to 6.5); sauna, 1.8 (95% CI, 0.4 to 7.9); fever, 1.8 (95% CI, 0.8 to 4.1); and electric blanket, 1.2 (95% CI, 0.5 to 2.6). When only hot tub, sauna, and fever were considered and the women's exposure to each tallied, compared with no heat exposure, the RR for NTDs increased from 1.9 (95% CI, 0.9 to 3.7) after one type of heat exposure to 6.2 (95% CI, 2.2 to 17.2) after two types of heat exposure.

Conclusions: Exposure to heat in the form of hot tub, sauna, or fever in the first trimester of pregnancy was associated with an increased risk for NTDs. Hot tub exposure appeared to have the strongest effect of any single heat exposure. Exposure to electric blanket was not materially associated with increased risk for NTDs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Fever / complications
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Hot Temperature / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange*
  • Neural Tube Defects / epidemiology
  • Neural Tube Defects / etiology*
  • New England / epidemiology
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Outcome / epidemiology
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors