The old joke used to continue: “And don’t let the bedbugs bite.” But these days, bedbugs are no joke. After 50 years of almost total inactivity, they are back with a vengeance, lurking in bedding, airplane seats and overstuffed furniture and causing movie theaters, hotel rooms and even one hospital to be closed for fumigation.
A U.S. government report in August warned of an alarming resurgence of the bedbug population here and abroad. It can’t give an exact cause but it cites heightened resistance to pesticides, increased foreign and domestic travel, public ignorance about the bugs because of their long absence, and ineffective pest control by state and local public health agencies.
The evil little beasts — from a nymph the size of a poppy seed to an adult as big as an apple seed — are believed to carry no infectious diseases, but they can itch like crazy and cause allergic reactions, and infections can develop from scratching. Some folks develop delusional parasitosis, the false feeling that bugs are crawling on them.
Bedbugs feed on the blood of sleeping people and animals. They can hide in fabric folds, cracks in bedsteads and clothing, waiting weeks or months for their next blood meal off a warm body. They mostly live within eight feet of where people sleep, but they can travel more than 100 feet at night in search of a victim. They inject an anesthetic and an anticoagulant so a person doesn’t feel the bite. Itching comes later.
What to do about it? First of all, make sure the infestation is bedbugs and not fleas, ticks, mosquitoes or other pests. Signs include a row of bites, actual sightings of the brownish, flat, wingless bugs and discarded shells.
If it looks like a bedbug problem, take prompt action. Delay can make eradication harder and more expensive.
Some steps that may help include vacuuming, cleaning up clutter, washing bedding in hot water and covering mattresses and pillows with plastic cases. Available indoor pesticides won’t help, and bringing in powerful bug killers for outside use can be dangerous. DDT, which helped wipe out bedbugs 50 years ago, was banned due to environmental concerns. Most authorities agree that it is best to call in a professional pest manager to assess the problem and treat it if necessary.
In the meantime, be careful not to carry bedbugs into your home. Some travelers staying at a hotel or motel put their bags in the bathroom instead of setting them on the rug. Examine luggage upon returning home for signs of the bugs.
Keep in mind that bedbugs carry a social stigma. Lodging places and even personal acquaintances may conceal or deny a bedbug problem.
Above all, don’t just scratch. Find out what’s causing the itch, and get help.