Bed bugs & beyond

Reports of bed bug infestations in U.S. cities’ hotels have sparked an increased interest in the insect. These parasitic bugs have been around for thousands of years, but until about the mid-1990’s they had not created much of a stir in our nation.

Bed bugs (cimicidae) are flat, reddish brown, non-flying insects, the mature adult growing up to about a quarter of an inch in length. They are sometimes mistaken for a tick or small cockroach. They feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals, particularly birds, bats and humans; therefore, they are found in and around homes and other places of lodging or residence. Bed bug infestations are seen more commonly in situations of poor sanitation and overcrowding. However, they can thrive even in clean environments.

They can live in any area of a residence. But since they must bite to feed, they are generally more concentrated where people sleep; hence, their name. They can be found in mattresses, box springs and bed frames and around the bedroom in dressers, cracks in furniture, curtains, edge of carpets and upholstery/textiles near the bed.

During World War II, with the introduction of DDT, there was a general decrease in bed bug problem in the U.S. Major infestations were fairly rare until the ban of these pesticides in 1972. However, they still remained a persistent nuisance in other countries.

Other explanations for the recent boost in bed bug activity are the development of resistance to the effects of oft-used pesticides and increases in international travel and immigration in the late 20th century. The insects can get into travel bags and luggage or on clothing and be transported with travelers.

They can survive for several months without feeding so they can be found in vacant homes. They can also be transported from one house to another during a move through boxes, clothing or furniture.

Bed bugs are more active at night. They can bite the exposed skin of a sleeping individual without being noticed. The bite may be overlooked or be passed off as a mosquito or other insect bite. The symptoms are similar – a small red bump, swelling and itching. Often one will see a line of small bites on the skin where the insect has had sequential feedings.

Bed bug bites are treated like other insect bites. Oral antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine, are generally helpful for itching. Steroid creams can be used topically for the itch. Always check with your doctor before taking any over the counter medications if you are on prescription medicines or have other chronic medical conditions.

If you think your home may have bed bugs, you can look for clues around the bedroom such as shed skins, egg casings and fecal materials or stains in the bed linens. Check mattresses, box springs, bed frames, nearby furniture, carpets and cracks and crevasses in walls. You may need professional assistance if you are not able to identify the bed bugs or if bugs are found and extermination is needed.

When traveling, keep your travel bags and luggage off the floor. Performing a quick examination of the room, beds and furniture may allow you to sleep tight without bed bug bites.

The content in this column is for informational purposes only. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.

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