Bed Bugs: Hazardous to Your Health or Just an Irritating Insect?

Bed bug infestations seem to be on the rise. So much so that some hotels are now putting warning cards on their rooms’ nightstands – tips on how to identify and avoid the little critters.

Just the mention of this unwelcome little parasite is enough to make many adults itch, so a small dose of fact may help dispatch this goblin.

What Exactly Are Bed Bugs?
They are insects; small but easily visible to anyone looking. They are brown in color, a half inch long and 1/8th inch wide. They usually hide during the day and are active at night. Having an exoskeleton, they must shed their skin, like a snake, to grow.

bed bugs on the box springphoto © 2009 lauren | more info (via: Wylio)

This is handy to know because the shed skin will be lying around and is more easily found than the hiding bed bugs. They live for about six months and reproduce with the usual enthusiasm, as is common in the insect world.

These little guys are blood suckers, like mosquitoes. In fact, they share many characteristics with mosquitoes. Both species are attracted to carbon dioxide in your exhalation and both favor feeding in darkness. The bed bug pierces the skin with a feeding tube, injects a little fluid that stops blood clotting, and sucks up their dinner a.k.a. your blood. This occurs infrequently, once or twice weekly, and the amount of blood taken is microscopic, so you don’t need to worry about anemia or bleeding to death.

During World War II, bed bugs were almost universal. In a short time after the war, bed bugs were almost eradicated. This great victory was made possible by the liberal use of DDT (yes, that DDT). Looking back, one might wonder if the treatment was worse than the disease. Now DDT is gone (almost), and bed bugs are back. Don’t make an emergency trip to a third world country to buy some DDT, however – other insecticides are much less toxic and still do the job.

How Do People Get Bed Bugs?
The eggs are almost invisible. They cling to clothing, bedding and furniture. This is called hitchhiking. Using a piece of contaminated clothing or sleeping on contaminate bedding can transmit the infestation. My 12-year-old daughter is practically a poster child for what not to do. She does sleepovers among an ever widening circle of friends and is constantly trading clothes.

Adolescent bed bugphoto © 2010 Rick | more info (via: Wylio)

What are the Health Consequences of a Bed Bug Infestation?
The first thing to point out is the word infestation, not infection. The bugs are not living in you. They live in the bed and bite you once in a while. The worst heath issue is a serious case of “the willies” (that is a technical term for totally freaked out).

Other than the anxiety, bed bugs, at worst, give you a red blotchy rash that might itch a bit. Bed bugs are not a vector for disease. You will not catch malaria or HIV from bed bugs. The bite is almost painless and any itching or irritation gets better on its own.

How Do You Get Rid of Bed Bugs?
Dispatching the creatures is more pest control than medical. You need an exterminator, not a doctor. Bedding should be washed in hot water and bleach, and cloth furniture should be thoroughly vacuumed. The eggs are easily washed off during normal showering. Some insecticide that is less toxic than DDT may be applied in your home.

The risk of bed bugs to your heath is minor. Armed with a few facts, we are effectively immunized against the worst of “the willies.”

Take care,

Dr. B

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