What's Worse Than Bedbugs? Their Poo

bedbug

Story at-a-glance -

  • Bedbugs are parasites that prefer a human blood meal; starting at the size of an apple seed, they swell and turn brown after feeding, making them more visible to the naked eye
  • Small, red bite marks may be your first indication of an infestation of bugs that don’t likely carry disease, but do deposit large amounts of histamine in their excrement to attract other bedbugs
  • Histamine concentration is high and persistent in infested homes, raising your risk of allergies
  • Avoid using chemical pesticides to eliminate bedbugs as they are associated with health risks; instead, consider using heat or cold treatments to kill the bugs and subsequent deep cleaning to rid your home of excrement, exoskeletons and histamine

By Dr. Mercola

Bedbugs are parasitic insects that feed exclusively on blood, and prefer human blood. About the size of an apple seed, they swell and turn a reddish color after feeding.1 Although they are a nuisance, multiply quickly and trigger allergic reactions, they don't likely spread disease.

Bedbugs are often creatures of the night and crawl out like vampires, feeding on the blood of people and animals while they're sleeping. They first inject an anesthetic so you don't feel the bite. Once finished with their meal they crawl off to their colony to rest. Once largely eradicated in the U.S., in recent decades populations of the insects have exploded as air travel has likely spread colonies across the world.

Bedbugs are spreading rapidly in North America and have been detected in every state in the U.S. While they are attracted to the smell of dirty laundry, an infestation does not mean you have a dirty home. They've been found everywhere from five-star resorts and cruise ships, to libraries, schools and day care centers.

Bedbugs can go for months without eating but prefer to feed every few days. Interestingly, they live and feed within 8 feet of a sleeping surface.2 Hiding during the day, often in a mattress seam, bed frame, headboard or behind wallpaper, these small creatures do more than bite and poop in your bed.3

A Bedbug Bite May Be Your First Evidence

Bedbugs affect each person differently. A bite response requires an allergic reaction, so if you aren't allergic you may not even be aware you have bedbugs at home.4 Those who are allergic may sometimes scratch so much that it leads to a secondary skin infection.5

Bite marks may take as long as 14 days to develop in some, so other signs to look for include exoskeletons of the bug after they have molted, live bedbugs or excrement in the folds of the mattress or sheets and rust-colored blood spots on the mattress or nearby furniture. The bite mark often looks like one left by other insects, including mosquitoes or fleas. The area might be slightly swollen and red and might itch and be irritating. Bite marks can be random or may appear in a straight line.6

Although infestations can be found year-round, they tend to peak during the summer months as more people are traveling during this time. You may be interested to know that Orkin Pest Control’s 2014 Bedbug City list included Chicago, Illinois, and four cities in Ohio (Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Dayton) in the top 10 cities with the worst bedbug infestations.7

Emotional Effect of Bugs May Have Physical Source

Although bedbugs are more of a nuisance than a danger, the psychological toll they exact can be steep. In one case study, a woman committed suicide after repeated bedbug infestations in her apartment. The researchers concluded:8 “the bedbug infestations were likely the trigger for the onset of a negative psychological state that ultimately led to suicide.”

Others who live with bedbugs are more likely to report problems with anxiety, sleep disturbances, financial distress, mood swings and delusional behavior.9 Emotional effects associated with post-traumatic stress disorder have also been reported after a bedbug infestation. Compounding the psychological issues is a misguided stigma that bedbugs are the result of uncleanliness.

Researchers have now found that bedbugs secrete enough histamine to trigger skin and respiratory symptoms.10 A lasting effect to the presence of bedbugs may be related to histamine present in the excrement. Histamine is a naturally occurring chemical in the body that is secreted in response to allergens. However, exposure to external amounts of histamine can result in a variety of health conditions, from rashes to respiratory disorders.11 Excess amounts of histamine has also been associated with anxiety disorders and depression.12

Bedbugs Do More Than Bite

Researchers from North Carolina State University investigated pest-free and infested homes, reporting that histamine levels were significantly higher in homes infested with bedbugs.13

Elevated levels of histamine persisted for months after the bedbug infestation had been eradicated. The researchers analyzed homes that had been heat treated to eliminate bedbugs and found histamine had the ability to withstand the raised temperatures and even evidenced an increased level of histamine after the apartments were pest-free for months.14

Although heat treatment is an effective means of killing the insects, the researchers speculated the rush of hot air stirred up excrement and spread histamine from infected mattresses to the remainder of the home.15 In earlier research,16 Canadian scientists had noted that histamine was secreted by bedbugs to attract others, essentially leaving a trail to crevices close to food sources. With this understanding, entomologist Zachary DeVries, Ph.D., wondered if health problems may result from exposure to external histamine.

He and his colleagues found infested apartments had an average of 54 micrograms of histamine per 100 milligrams of dust. This was significantly higher than the amount of histamine found in noninfested homes, even though the amount of dust was equal between the homes.17 The health effects are thus far unclear. Devries and his colleagues concluded:18

"Notably, the histamine concentrations in dust collected in bedbug-infested homes were 50-times greater than in agricultural hay. The high concentrations, persistence, and proximity to humans during sleep suggest that bedbug-produced histamine may represent an emergent contaminant and pose a serious health risk in the indoor environment. Histamine is used in bronchial and dermal provocation, but it is rarely considered an environmental risk factor in allergic disease."

Have Bugs, Will Travel

A female bedbug can lay hundreds of eggs in her lifetime. The average life cycle is between 10 months to one year, as the bug goes through multiple stages.19 When there is a viable host available, the bugs can progress through those stages rather rapidly and reach maturity in just one month.20 To find a viable host, bugs rely on a variety of sights, smells and changes in temperature. Bedbugs live year-round as they are sheltered from extreme temperatures in your home or hotel room, but are most active during summer.

A greater number of infestations are reported in the summer as there are more people traveling and staying in hotels. Researchers from the University of Sheffield in England were interested in what drives bedbug behavior in the absence of a viable host.21 In a small study, researchers analyzed the movements of bedbugs when they were exposed to bags of clean clothing or bags of clothing that had been worn for several hours. One of the rooms also had a steady flow of carbon dioxide piped-in to simulate human breathing.22

The researchers discovered that the bugs in the room with carbon dioxide searched more actively for a blood host. Surprisingly, the bugs in the room with the bag of previously worn clothing were also more active and appeared to be attracted to the clothing.23 The researchers surmised the bug’s ability to discern human odor plays a role in the spread of the insects and may offer information that could be used to help dissuade insects from traveling with you.

One of the ways bugs have traveled around the world is in bags of dirty laundry that are carted from hotel to hotel and then home. This study demonstrates that storing your dirty laundry in airtight containers may help prevent parasitic hitchhikers from coming home with you. Unfortunately, it only takes two or three bedbugs a couple of months to populate your home.

Before You Unpack, Do This

This short video gives you simple instructions on how to find bedbugs in your home or hotel. It's important to take sensible precautions while traveling to reduce your risk of bringing a little critter home. Before making hotel reservations, check out the hotel’s Bedbug Report,24 a free public database of hotels and apartment complexes across the U.S. and Canada. The database lists hotels by region, so if your hotel has a report of bedbugs, you can find one on the list that has a clear report.

Don't unpack when you arrive. Instead, place your luggage in a clean bathroom tub or on a rack off the floor while you inspect the room.25 A credit card and flashlight will help you find any bugs that may have taken up residence. If you don’t have a flashlight, install a flashlight app on your smartphone. Starting with the pillows, peel back the pillow case and look along the seams for small eggs, insects or excrement.

Pull back the sheets and mattress cover to look for telltale stains or live bugs in the creases of the mattress. Remember to look along the tiny air vents located on the side of the mattress or box springs and be sure to look thoroughly at all four corners of the bed and not just one. Take care to look under furniture as well — upholstered chairs, box springs, nightstands — and along the headboard and curtains, where they may hide until their next meal. If you do find bedbugs, pick up your luggage and leave immediately.

It's a good idea to do a routine basic inspection the following morning as well. Look for tiny red blood stains on the sheets that may be evident after a bedbug bite. If you didn't find them the night before, but do the next morning, you'll be able to take precautions so you don't bring them home.26 Bedbugs may also arrive on the coats or clothing of a friend who comes to visit, or on the clothing of appliance repair people. Therefore, even if you haven't done any traveling, it's a good idea to routinely inspect your home.

Dangerous Health Effects May Follow Chemical Treatment

While you might want these bugs gone as quickly as possible, you'll want to use caution before accepting standard pesticide treatments in your home. The National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) has reported a dramatic increase in the number of mild to serious side effects resulting from pesticides used to kill bedbugs.

Inquiries are increasing each year, with 7 percent related to pesticide exposure, spill or misapplication.27 In a number of cases, side effects were related to excess use or failure to change bedding and inadequate ventilation.

The NPIC reports that bedbugs have become resistant to commonly used pesticides and no longer respond to bug bombs or foggers.28 They report receiving hundreds of calls each year regarding both the treatment of bedbugs and the side effects from using pesticides to treat homes or commercial buildings. Daily spot treatments with pesticides also increases the potential the bugs will develop resistance and increases your own exposure to toxic chemicals.29

Anytime you choose to use pesticides, you increase your risk of experiencing neurological and cardiopulmonary symptoms and other long-term and chronic conditions, as well as poisoning your immediate environmental surroundings. There are effective and safer means of treating bedbug infestations that do not include pesticide use.

Prevention and Safe Treatment Your Best Options

Heat treatment is an effective and safe option to kill bedbugs in your home.30 This involves exposing your house or areas of your home to a temperature of 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius) for an hour to kill the bugs, regardless of their stage in life. Heat treatment can be applied to individual items, such as clothes that can be placed in a dryer on a hot setting for 30 minutes, or may be applied to an entire room by a company expert at this treatment method.

The featured study indicates that while heat treatment is an effective means of killing bedbugs and their larvae, it does not remove the presence of histamine, nor their exoskeletons and excrement that may trigger allergic reactions.31 Heat treatment can stir up a cloud of histamine and excrement that deposits in the dust on your furniture and flooring. Thus, it's important that once heat treatment of your home is completed, you do a thorough cleaning and dusting to remove as much histamine, excrement and exoskeletons as possible.

With small items you may consider cold treatment by exposing the item to a temperature of 0 degrees F (-18 degrees C) for four days. Smaller items can be sealed in a bag and placed inside of a freezer.

It's important that you use a thermometer to check the temperature, since not all freezers will reach 0 degrees F. Bedbug traps are another effective option. Although these are commercially available, you can make your own at home. Discover how to make one and more tips to prevent an infestation in your home at my previous article, “How to Get Rid of Bed Bugs.”

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