A friend called yesterday and asked if I thought her daughter had bed bugs. Her toddler had woken up with welts over her face, chest, back and trunk. She was itchy. Her mom was worried about bed bugs. I tried to reassure her, telling her what I knew about bed bugs &  how young children react to insect bites (not just bed bugs), I asked:

  • Does the bed have copper colored stains on it?
  • Is the mattress new or borrowed?
  • Any other babies or children nap in her crib recently?
  • Any one else at home with bites or itching?
  • Any travel to a hotel recently?

But I got to thinking, what do I know about bed bugs? Not that much, actually. A good friend of mine caught bed bugs from a famous San Francisco hotel about 3 years ago. I’d read up on it at that time to help her; she’d been diagnosed by a SF dermatologist while traveling for work. The hotel apologized, placed all her things (suitcase) in their walk-in freezer overnight and sent her home with some “points” to return to their hotels for free. She left with her frost encrusted “baggage.” She did just fine (easy for me to say), but I’ve certainly remembered the story and I’ll never stay at that hotel. There is something uber-creepy about the thought of bugs chewing on our toes while we sleep.

So I get the overwhelming response to media reports about bed bugs. When my mom mentioned a local NPR interview about bed bugs she heard yesterday, in combination with the phone call, I thought, “Oh no, people are starting to freak out.”  It ‘s all over the media. Then, I opened the NYT this morning and saw the cover article about bed bug infestations in New York City that ends likening bed bugs to the H1N1 scare. Closed movie theaters, infested dressing rooms, you name it.  Bed bugs appear to be teeming around the internet, and as we all start to scratch ourselves and wonder if it’s worth leaving the house (or if we’re surrounded at home), I did a little research:

What Are Bed Bugs?

  • Bed bugs are about 1/8-1/4 inch brown/reddish copper-colored little bugs. They feed solely on the blood of warm animals. (Is this starting to sound like a new teen mini-series?)
  • Bed bugs thrive on humans and can be elusive, hiding out in mattresses, clothing, floorboards or bedding. When confronted, they can move quickly and will hitchhike in suitcases, clothes or will crawl on walls moving around a home or hotel. Total free-loaders, they will wait until a warm animal is sleeping at night to feed.
  • Bed bugs aren’t dangerous and don’t transmit disease (like hepatitis or HIV). Rather, they bite you, fill up on blood and are off. The “bite marks” appear because during the feeding process the bug injects little bit of their saliva into your skin. It’s the saliva that causes an allergic reaction and bite mark.
  • Most people will have a mild allergic reaction to the bites, but the bugs are more of a nuisance than a health risk, per se. Rarely, the bites can get infected. Avoid scratching the bite to prevent an infection. Use Benadryl to help.

Why All the Media Coverage?

  • The media writes about things that capture your attention. Ummm, bug chewing on toes at night, yup. A perfect topic for selling a newspaper.
  • High profile (Times square movie theaters, Elle magazine offices, etc) infestations are catching our attention this week. This month the CDC stated there is an alarming resurgence of bed bugs in North America. Infestations in tourist areas (NYC, for example) are on the rise, but also all over the US. Why? The increased rates of bed bugs are suspected because of the bug’s growing resistance to pesticides, greater international travel (spread), and decline of reliable pest control programs at state and local public health programs.

What To Do If You Suspect Bed Bugs?

  • Don’t freak out! With a good plan you can safely get rid of bed bugs. They are not dangerous, just creepy and uncomfortable.
  • You can visit your pediatrician for help but know that bites (from insects, spiders, other bugs) often look very similar. It’s very difficult for a doctor to know what bit you. Bed bug bites can look just like bites from other blood sucking insects like mosquitoes or fleas. However, a doctor can help by identifying the marks as bug bites and may also help determine if children need an anti-itch antihistamine like Benadryl or a prescription (rare). If you’re concerned about itching or the diagnosis of a rash, then certainly call for an appointment.
  • If you’re really worried bed bugs, start by searching for the bed bugs in crevasses, folds, or spots between linens, curtains, and bed frames. Bed bugs are visible, but they are flat and crafty and hide in tiny, narrow spaces. Look in crannies.
  • Look for “fecal spots”– dark brown or copper colored stains on the sheets. Basically, you’re looking for bed bug poop stains. Gag.
  • If you find bed bugs or suspect them, confirm their identity by matching them with a reliable photo.
  • Don’t try to fumigate your home or use pesticides on your own. You’ll likely be woefully under-prepared and could potentially cause more harm than good. The last thing you want to do is fill your home with chemicals that may not work properly to rid bed bugs, yet bring in toxins you don’t want. Contact your local pest control agency for advice and help.
  • If you rent your home or apartment, you have the right to a safe and habitable (read: no bed bugs) accommodation. Contact state health organization for support if you are running into trouble with a landlord.

I feel less itchy after doing the research. You? Don’t let the bed bugs bite. And do sleep tight.