Don't let the bed bugs bite!

By Olivia Rose-Innes

The mention of bed bugs brings to mind seedy boarding houses and unsavoury backpacker establishments. But even perfectly respectable homes may harbour these unwelcome little guests - maybe even yours.

That unidentified red, itchy spot may be a bed-bug bite.

What are bed bugs?
Bed bugs are parasitic insects that feed on the blood of mammals (humans are their preferred host) and birds. They hide in cracks and crevices in your bed (and sometimes in other places in your bedroom) during the day, and feed mainly at night.

Usually, the person being bitten is unaware of it at the time. Reaction to the bite may occur some time later, and varies among individuals: some people get an itchy, inflamed welt, others don’t. Bites usually occur on any area of exposed skin. It’s hard to tell whether the bites are due to bedbugs or another cause (e.g. a flea or mosquito); to know for sure, you’d need to find a bed bug.

Which isn’t all that easy, because they aren’t very obvious. They’re small, brownish insects, with oval, flattened bodies. When engorged with blood, they look darker and larger. The immature forms are colourless. You may notice blood stains from crushed bugs on the sheets, or brownish spots from their faeces. An unpleasant, sweetish smell may indicate a heavy infestation.

Do bed bugs carry disease?
Bed bugs are not considered to be carriers of any disease. Although they can harbour certain pathogens (e.g. hepatitis), it has not been demonstrated that these are transmitted to humans.

The main health issue with bed bug bites is that they cause irritation and inflammation, and scratching them can lead to secondary infection. Also the bites may trigger allergic reactions in susceptible people.

If you have what you think is a bed bug bite, then wash it with soap and water and apply an antiseptic cream.

How do you get rid of them?
Bed bug expert Michael Potter, Professor of Entomology at the University of Kentucky, states that these insects are extremely difficult to get rid of and recommends calling a professional pest control agency as soon as signs of infestation are noticed.

However, the following methods are good practice if you decide to use professionals or brave it out yourself. Good housework and vigilance, stresses Potter, is essential in avoiding the problem in the first place.

You need to tackle your bed, obviously, but, depending on how heavy the infestation is, you may need to deal with the bugs in your bedroom generally. They hide first in the seams of the mattress; then, as they establish themselves, more may occupy crevices in the bed base, and even areas further away from the bed e.g. between floorboards, in window and door frames, and cracks in wall plaster.

Before going the pesticide route, do a thorough spring clean of your sleeping area.

Vacuum your mattress (with the tube attachment) and bedroom thoroughly. After vacuuming, immediately place the vacuum bag (or, failing that, its contents) in a plastic bag and discard it in a bin outside.

You can also try using a stiff brush on the mattress. Discarding the mattress (especially if it’s an old one with holes in it) is an option to consider, and should certainly help – just keep in mind that a new mattress can quickly become infested if there are still bugs left in the room.

Once the mattress has been cleaned, enclose it in a zippered cover such as that used for dust mites, to trap any bed bugs remaining on the mattress. Leave the cover in place for about a year, as bed bugs can live a long time without feeding.

Wash bedding and sleepwear in hot water, and dry on the hot setting in a tumble-dryer, or in direct sunlight.

Bed bugs can’t fly, and aren’t very good at climbing up smooth surfaces. You can try standing the legs of your bed in glass jars or metal cans; for good measure, you can fill these containers with soapy water. Other methods include covering the legs with vaseline or double-sided sticky tape.

Another non-chemical method is to wrap your bed and any other suspect furniture or items in black plastic and put them in the sun for a few hours.

Make sure you don’t have animals like birds, rats or bats living in your home, as their nests can also harbour bed bugs or similar insects.

Use pesticides only as a last resort
Pesticides, which have been linked to a number of health and environmental problems, should be avoided if at all possible – especially in the home, and especially in the bedroom where we spend eight or more hours a day.

However, sometimes these chemicals are necessary if you have a really persistent bug problem. But don’t skimp on the cleaning first; if you do use pesticides, they’ll probably work better on clean surfaces. Don’t use any chemical product on a mattress unless the product label specifically says you can (if you’re not sure, contact the manufacturer). Mattresses of babies or ill people should never be treated with pesticides.

If you’re going to use a pesticide, I suggest that you apply it (concentrating mainly on seams and crevices), then close your bedroom and sleep somewhere else for a few days. Before you use your bedroom again, ventilate it thoroughly: open doors and windows, and let the air and sunlight in.

Don’t be too disheartened if you don’t solve the problem the first time round – these insects are often hard to get rid of.

(- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, updated July 2010)


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