Don't Let the Bed Bugs Bite

Bed Bug Infestation

Story at-a-glance -

  • Bed bugs are spreading rapidly in the US, with Chicago ranking as the top bed bug city
  • Although not considered disease spreaders, bed bugs can cause allergic reaction, uncomfortable itching, and severe emotional distress
  • Rates of illnesses caused by pesticides used to treat bed bugs are also on the rise
  • Thermal remediation offers a non-chemical alternative to rid your home of bed bugs

By Dr. Mercola

Bed bugs are small, parasitic insects that crawl out like vampires in the night, feeding on the blood of people and animals while they sleep. Although they're found worldwide, bed bugs were considered largely eradicated in the US until recent decades.

Now, they're spreading rapidly in North America, including in the US where they've been detected in every state. Cleanliness is no deterrent for these pesky creatures, and they've popped up everywhere from five-star resorts and cruise ships to libraries, schools, and day care centers.

While a bed bug may go for months without eating, they prefer to feed every several days, and will travel up to 100 feet to find a meal (although most live within eight feet of a sleeping surface).1

Bed bugs typically hide during the day, in mattress seams, bed frames, headboards, dressers, behind wallpaper, and any other small crack or crevice they can find. This is why one of the first things you should do while traveling is to check your sleeping area thoroughly for bed bugs or signs that they're around (like feces).

Are Bed Bugs Dangerous?

Bed bugs are more of a nuisance than a danger, although they can prompt serious allergic reactions in some people. Although more than 40 human diseases have been detected in bed bugs, they're not known to spread diseases, although evidence in this area is lacking.2

Their bites can cause significant itching, however, which can in turn lead to a secondary skin infection if excessive scratching damages your skin. They can also lead to loss of sleep, although this is typically due to anxiety over the bed bugs and not the bites themselves. When you're bitten by a bed bug, it injects anesthetic and anticoagulant at the same time, so you won't feel the bite until later.

Anywhere from a day to several days later red, swollen bumps, similar to mosquito bites, will appear, typically on your neck, arms, hands, and face (although they can be anywhere on your body). They may itch or feel irritated, but try not to scratch them.

The psychological toll that bed bugs exact can be steep, however. There is one case report showing a woman who committed suicide following repeated bed bug infestations in her apartment, and the researchers concluded, "the bed bug infestations were the likely trigger for the onset a negative psychological state that ultimately led to suicide."3

Research has also shown that people who have experienced bed bugs in their living environment are significantly more likely to report anxiety and sleep disturbances.4 Emotional distress and even psychological and emotional effects associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have also been reported after bed-bug infestations.

How to Detect a Bed Bud Infestation – and the Top 10 Bed Bug Cities

Bed bugs' bodies are flat and range in size from one to seven millimeters (mm). Their shape, combined with their reddish-brown color, makes it easy for bed bugs to hide out along baseboards and the folds of luggage, bedding, folded clothing, furniture, and more.

If you look carefully, you may be able to spot bed bugs near your sleeping area, but they may also be present if you detect the following signs:5

  • Bed bug exoskeletons, which are released after molting
  • Rust-colored blood spots on mattresses or furniture (this is from their blood-filled fecal matter)
  • A sweet, musty odor

While bed bugs are found year-round, infestations tend to peak during the summer months, perhaps because more people are travelling during this time. And if you'll be travelling, you might be interested to know if you're going to one of the worst cities for bed bugs in the US, as compiled in Orkin Pest Control's 2014 Bed Bug Cities List:6

  1. Chicago, IL
  2. Detroit, MI
  3. Columbus, OH
  4. Los Angeles, CA
  5. Cleveland, OH
  6. Dallas/Fort Worth, TX
  7. Cincinnati, OH
  8. Denver, CO
  9. Richmond-Petersburg, VA
  10. Dayton, OH
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The Pesticides Used to Eliminate Bed Bugs Are Causing Illnesses…

No one wants to let bed bugs linger in their home or place of business, but you must use caution before accepting any of the standard pesticide-based treatments.

From 2003 to 2010, 111 illnesses, including one fatality, associated with bed bug-related insecticide use were detected by the Sentinel Event Notification System for Occupational Risks (SENSOR)-Pesticides program and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH).7

The National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) has also reported a "dramatic increase" in the number of bed bug-related calls due to pesticide exposures. NPIC reported 169 such calls from 2006 to 2010, 129 of which resulted in mild or serious health effects (including one death).8

Most often, the illnesses were related to excessive insecticide application, failure to wash or change pesticide-treated bedding, and inadequate notification of pesticide application.

Serious Neurological Symptoms Reported After Bed Bug Treatments

Cases have also been reported of pesticides intended only for outdoor use being sprayed indoors. In one case in Ohio, according to a health advisory released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):9

"These illegal applications were made five times over 72 hours and included spraying of ceilings, floors, and even beds and a crib mattress. The occupants included a family with small children, who displayed health symptoms typical of pesticide poisoning, including headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, and muscle tremors.

The families were evaluated and treated at a local hospital. The homes were evacuated and families relocated. The families lost furniture, electronics, clothing, linens, toys, and other personal items that were grossly contaminated."

In other calls to NPIC, the CDC reported:10

"…the family members (ranging in ages from 1-32 years) experienced neurological symptoms (such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, visual disturbances, numbness in the face and limbs, muscle tremors, etc.), abdominal pain, and cardiopulmonary symptoms (chest tightness, heart palpitations, and chest pain).

Documented in another call was a mother who contacted NPIC describing her infant who developed vomiting and diarrhea after being placed on a mattress treated with an undiluted indoor insecticide.

Other bed bug related calls to NPIC describe similar complaints where the caller or the caller's family members experienced headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, tremors, etc., from indoor pesticides being misapplied (often over applied)."

Toxin-Free Thermal Remediation May Offer Non-Toxic Bed Bug Treatment

If your home is infested with bed bugs and you don't want to douse your home in pesticides, there is another option: thermal remediation. The process essentially turns your home into an oven for a number of hours, during which the extreme heat (upwards of 130 degrees Fahrenheit) kills the bugs.11

Everything can remain in your home, except for plastic items or anything that might melt (and pets must be removed, of course). This makes it far more convenient than chemical treatment, which typically involves packing and bagging everything in your home and getting rid of clothing and mattresses. Plus, it solves the issue of pesticide resistance, which has been spreading among bed bugs. While thermal remediation may be slightly more costly than chemical processes, the health effects it can spare your family are truly priceless.

How to Avoid a Bed Bug Infestation

Bed bugs have become a fact of life in the 21st century, and not one that's likely to go away any time soon. If you travel at all or visit any facilities like hospitals, libraries, movie theaters, etc., there's a possibility you could bring home some of these unwelcome visitors. To minimize your chances of an infestation, follow the tips below:12

Always inspect hotel rooms for signs of an infestation (look for bed bugs in mattress seams and check for any rust-colored spots on bedding)Check your sleeping area thoroughly, including under the mattress, bed frame, and headboard as well as in nearby furnitureKeep your luggage on luggage racks, not on the bed or on the floor and away from electrical outlet panels, art frames, and other bed-bug hiding spots
When you return home, examine your luggage and clothing carefully, and store it away from your sleeping areaPlace all of your previously packed clothing directly into the dryer for at least 15 minutes on the highest settingKeep clutter in your home to a minimum (which will give bed bugs fewer places to hide)
Wash and dry bed linens on the hottest temperature setting allowedInspect any used furniture carefully before bringing it into your homeInspect your home for signs of bed bugs regularly, after you've travelled, had houseguests, or even when a service technician has been in your home