NEW YORK (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – For some dermatologists, surgical care of the pregnant patient represents an area of uncertainty. But with few exceptions, dermatologists can continue with business as usual for their pregnant patients, according to Keith Harrigill, MD.

Dr. Harrigill, a dermatologist who previously was a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist, delineated the safe zones of dermatologic surgery in these patients at the summer meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.

About 2% of pregnant women will require nonobstetric surgery and about 75,000 pregnant women in the United States will have surgery annually, he said. Appendectomies and other emergent abdominal surgery account for a large proportion of these cases; dermatologic surgeries are not included in these figures, and cutaneous procedures in pregnant women are not usually tracked. The literature on dermatologic treatments during pregnancy is “scant,” said Dr. Harrigill, a dermatologist in private practice in Birmingham, Ala.

However, it’s known that one-third of women with melanoma are of childbearing age, and melanoma accounts for 8% of the malignancies diagnosed during pregnancy, with a rate estimated at 0.14 to 2.8 per 1,000 live births, he said.

Since some women will have to address potentially serious skin issues during pregnancy, what’s safe, and what isn’t? Dr. Harrigill said that the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has provided guidance with an April 2017 opinion, prepared in conjunction with the American Society for Anesthesia, on nonobstetric surgery during pregnancy ( Obstet Gynecol. 2017;129:777-8 ).

The opinion primarily focuses on major surgery. “What we do – cutaneous surgeries – they consider to be minor surgery,” he said. But even with major procedures, the good news is that “there’s no increase in birth defects in fetal exposure to anesthesia at any age,” he noted.

Dr. Harrigill’s approach, which conforms to the general guidance provided by the opinion, is to think of dermatologic procedures in three categories: urgent, nonurgent, and elective. Urgent procedures might include biopsying and treating a lesion suspicious for melanoma or an aggressive nonmelanoma skin cancer, or controlling a friable, bleeding pyogenic granuloma. “Do these right away,” he said.

Nonurgent procedures, such as treatment of a nodular basal cell carcinoma, should be done during the second trimester, when possible. Elective procedures, such as a scar excision, should be deferred until after delivery.

Dermatologists can almost always achieve adequate pain control with local anesthesia alone, said Dr. Harrigill, pointing out that local anesthesia is “the safest known way to give anesthesia during pregnancy.”

However, when thinking about even a remote risk of teratogenesis, it’s important to understand that fetal organogenesis occurs from day 15 to day 56, and that before 15 days, adverse events are limited to spontaneous abortion. So it’s particularly important to avoid teratogenic medications during the first 2 months of gestation, Dr. Harrigill said.

Part of the concern, he noted, is that it’s ethically problematic to perform large randomized trials in pregnant women, so the guidelines regarding surgery and medication safety are drawn from retrospective studies, registries, meta-analyses, and expert consensus.

Still, according to the ACOG guidelines, “a pregnant woman should never be denied indicated surgery, regardless of trimester.”

There’s no reason to risk delaying a diagnosis of malignancy in a pregnant patient, Dr. Harrigill said. “My dermatologic surgery approach is to biopsy anything that is clinically suspicious for malignancy, at any gestational age.”

When performing biopsies in pregnant patients, he uses the same protocol as he uses with any other patient. Skin preparation can be done with either isopropyl alcohol or chlorhexidine. Some practitioners avoid using povidone iodine because of a theoretical risk of fetal hypothyroidism.

For anesthesia, Dr. Harrigill noted that lidocaine is generally considered safe in pregnancy. He is also comfortable using epinephrine, despite the theoretical concern of uterine artery spasm, for which “studies are lacking.” The relatively minute amount of epinephrine used in dermatologic anesthesia, he said, is not likely to have an impact on such a large vessel.

Prilocaine is generally safe, and combination creams with prilocaine are fine to use, he said. Diphenhydramine is also safe to use. However, he advised avoiding long-acting anesthetic agents, such as mepivacaine and bupivacaine.

His advice regarding sedation? “Don’t do it.” Dr. Harrigill said he doesn’t use sedation in the office for his nonpregnant patients, either.

Before about 20 weeks of pregnancy, Dr. Harrigill said not to worry about how the patient is positioned. But after that, the lateral decubitus position is best because it keeps the gravid uterus from compressing the great vessels.

“Pregnant women are prone to fainting due to progesterone-mediated vasodilation,” he said. Dermatologists can work with their office staff to keep these patients well hydrated, and make sure they get in and out of chairs and off exam tables slowly.

No changes are needed in excision or suturing techniques. Because cicatrization is delayed in pregnant women, Dr. Harrigill uses longer-lasting absorbable sutures with high tensile strength, especially when performing procedures on the trunk or abdomen. This means that his closures will use delayed-absorption epidermal sutures with running nylon pull-through subcuticular sutures as well. He will leave these in for 5-7 days longer than usual.

Pregnant women are not at a higher risk of infection than the general population, so he follows the standard procedures here as well. If an antibiotic is indicated, penicillin, a cephalosporin, azithromycin, and erythromycin base are all logical choices.

To be avoided are sulfamethoxazole/trimethoprim, which carries a risk of feta hyperbilirubinemia, especially when given in the second trimester; doxycycline and tetracycline, which can cause permanent brown discoloration of the teeth; and fluoroquinolones, which have been associated with cartilage defects.

For analgesia, acetaminophen is an option. Ibuprofen and salicylates should be avoided, especially at the end of pregnancy when their administration is associated with premature closure of the ductus arteriosus, and, possibly, placental abruption, Dr. Harrigill noted.

However, short-term use of opioids is generally considered safe for the fetus. If larger doses are given just before delivery, the neonate may experience respiratory depression. This scenario is unlikely to be faced by the dermatologist, noted Dr. Harrigill. “I use these without reservation” in terms of fetal risk, he said.

Collaboration is key when caring for pregnant patients, said Dr. Harrigill, who recommends consulting the obstetrician of record for any procedures other than a simple biopsy or shave removal.

Dr. Harrigill reported that he had no conflicts of interest.

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