4 reasons not to ignore signs of bed bugs

An infestation can carry real risks
May 15, 2015 — 7:15 am EST
	Bed bugs: Ignore at your own peril. Here are four reasons why.

Signs of a bed bug infestation are visible on this bed’s box springs. The owners initially missed the spot, noting it had been “covered up by our bedskirt, fitted sheet, and mattress pad.”

lauren/Flickr/(CC BY-NC 2.0)

Most people find bed bugs gross. Dealing with the pests can be a real nuisance, too. But ignoring an infestation could make efforts to eventually evict the bugs only harder. Much harder. Any delay also could put your physical or mental health at risk. So consider these reasons why it pays to heed signs of bed bugs.

1)    Many people are allergic to the chemicals released when these insects bite. Victims can develop redness, swelling and other signs of inflammation around the bite marks. But that may not be all. Allergies can be serious. In a few people, bites may provoke life-threatening reactions. (Note that not everybody is allergic to bed bugs, though. So if you suspect you have bed bugs, even if you don’t have bites, you might need to check your home carefully for the insects.)

2)    Scientists have shown that bed bugs can carry many different types of germs in and on their bodies. The good news: There is no strong evidence yet that the bugs can pass on these germs to people. Scientists are looking at this possibility, however. A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine did find that most bed bugs that fed on mice infected with Trypansoma cruzi could pick up the parasite. When the same bed bugs later fed on uninfected mice, the insects transmitted the parasite to them. T. cruzi causes a sometimes fatal illness called Chagas disease. Scientists now are doing follow-up research to figure out if the bugs also can spread this parasite to people.

3)    Even if bed bugs do not spread infections, they definitely can cause mental harm to some people. In 2012, researchers from the University of Montreal in Quebec, Canada, found that bed bug infestations can make people anxious and give them insomnia — trouble sleeping. This was true even in people who never had anxiety problems in the past. And trouble sleeping isn’t the biggest threat to mental health. In 2013, the same Canadian researchers reported on a woman with mental health problems who later suffered a series of bed-bug infestations. Coping with them so overwhelmed her that she eventually took her life.

4)    But perhaps the best reason not to ignore these pests: They won’t go away on their own. Bed bugs can live several months without a meal. During that time, they’ll just hunker down in some dark spot and wait for the next warm-blooded meal source to show up — perhaps you.

Brooke Borel is the author of a new book on bed bugs.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

allergy  The inappropriate reaction by the body’s immune system to a normally harmless substance. Untreated, a particularly severe reaction can lead to death.

anxiety  A nervous disorder causing excessive uneasiness and apprehension. People with anxiety may even develop panic attacks.

bed bug  A parasitic insect that feeds exclusively on blood. The common bed bug, Cimex lectularius, sucks human blood and is mainly active at night. The insect’s bite can cause skin rashes and welts that sometimes look like a mosquito bite, but different people react in different ways

Chagas disease   A potentially life-threatening disease that afflicts about 6 million people, mostly in Latin America. It’s caused by a protozoan parasite and is usually spread by contact with the feces of an insect called a “kissing bug.” Untreated, it can kill by destroying the heart muscle and its nervous system.

exterminator  A person whose job is to control or kills insects, rodents, and other pests. Sometimes also called a pest controller or a pest control operator.

feces  A body's solid waste, made up of undigested food, bacteria and water. The feces of larger animals are sometimes also called dung.

germ  Any one-celled microorganism, such as a bacterium, fungal species or virus particle. Some germs cause disease. Others can promote the health of higher-order organisms, including birds and mammals. The health effects of most germs, however, remain unknown.

inflammation  The body’s response to cellular injury; it often involves swelling, redness, heat and pain. It is also an underlying feature responsible for the development and aggravation of many diseases, especially heart disease and diabetes.

insect  A type of arthropod that as an adult will have six segmented legs and three body parts: a head, thorax and abdomen. There are hundreds of thousands of insects, which include bees, beetles, flies and moths.

insecticide  A poison applied to kill insects.

insomnia   An inability to get to sleep and stay asleep long enough to become fully rested.

parasite  An organism that gets benefits from another species, called a host, but doesn’t provide it any benefits. Classic examples of parasites include ticks, fleas and tapeworms.

NGSS: 

  • HS-LS2-8

Citation

B. Borel. Infested: How the bed bug infiltrated our bedrooms and took over the world (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

R. Salazar et al. "Bed Bugs (Cimex lectularius) as vectors of Trypanosoma cruzi." American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 14-0483, November 17, 2014. doi: 10.4269/ajtmh.14-0483.

 S. Burrows et al. "Suicide following an infestation of bed bugs." American Journal of Case Reports. Vol.14, May 29, 2013, p. 176. doi:  10.12659/AJCR.883926.

S. Susser et al. "Mental health effects from urban bed bug infestation (Cimex lectularius L.): A cross-sectional study." British Medical Journal Open. Vol. 2, September 25, 2012, p. e000838. 10.1136/bmjopen-2012-000838.

Further Reading

A.P. Stevens. “Stress for success.” Science News for Students. March 20, 2015.

S. Perkins. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.” Science News for Students. May 20, 2014.

R. Kwok. “True vampires.” Science News for Students. October 28, 2013.

S. Milius. “Let the bedbugs bite.” Science News. August 23, 2013.

S. Milius. “Bloodsuckers get out of bed.” Science News for Students. January 4, 2012.

National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky. Bugs without borders. 2011.