If you’ve ever had a peculiar feeling that you weren’t alone in bed, or awakened and noticed bug bites on your body but couldn’t recall being bitten or seeing any bugs, then Cimex lectularius, the common bedbug, may be the culprit.
The reddish-brown insect has a flat, oval-shaped body, approximately the size of a tick, and is wingless. It hides in the crevices of walls, floors, mattress springs, bed frames, wooden furniture, behind wooden picture frames, on lighting fixtures and under peeling paint and loosened wallpaper during the day – and emerges at night to feed on humans, its preferred host.
Bedbugs can also live off mice, bats, chickens, birds, cats, dogs and guinea pigs.
The immediate bite is painless, because the bug injects an anesthetic into the skin. This allows the insect to dine uninterrupted for approximately 3-12 minutes. Bites usually appear in groups of three and look like welts with a red center or small bruised, colored bumps. They are extremely itchy. In rare cases, a person can suffer a severe allergic reaction from the bites and develop asthma and anaphylaxis.
A red or brown stain or flecks of black – bug excrement – on sheets or mattress seams are signs of a bedbug infestation. A sweet, musty odor may accompany the presence of large numbers of bedbugs. The insects emit pheromones to attract other bedbugs.
They can also sneak into your luggage at the hotel and return home with you.
Studies suggest that bedbugs may be potential vectors for the hepatitis B virus, although this is controversial. The virus may have been transmitted through the bug’s feeding on an already infected host. There are no confirmed cases of bedbug bites transmitting disease to date.
Suspect a bedbug infestation?
If bedbugs invade, the following tips may help fend off an attack, which can be costly and time-consuming, not to mention harmful to your health.
• Hire a professional exterminator.
• Reduce clutter to decrease hiding places.
• Thoroughly clean rooms by scrubbing infested surfaces with a stiff brush to dislodge eggs.
• Use a vacuum cleaner equipped with a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter. Use the maximum suction setting to remove bugs from crevices, mattress seams and bed boards.
• Clean all luggage.
• Seek dermatologic treatment. Uncontrollable itching and scratching can lead to infection, skin damage and scarring. Prescription medication can halt the itching and help clear the bites quickly.
• Bedbugs die above 113 F. Wrap infested items in plastic and place them outside in the sun for two weeks. Put a thermometer in the bag to confirm that it reaches the killing temperature.
• It is not necessary to discard furniture. Professional heat or steam cleaning can disinfect it.
• Examine luggage carefully during travel.
• Do not buy used or refurbished mattresses. Do not buy the floor-model mattress in the store.
• When purchasing antique wooden furniture, check for bugs. Cimex lectularius can comfortably live for a year or more without food.
• When buying used clothing, bedding, etc., dry clean or wash in hot water before use.
• Do not place suitcases or clothing on hotel floors. Use a luggage caddy, the top of a dresser or a coffee table. If possible, pull the furniture on which you place your luggage away from the walls.
• Wear pajamas to bed.
• Silverfish and termite droppings can be confused with bedbug scybala. Use silicone caulk to seal crevices in walls, baseboards and corners.
• Remove roosting bats and birds near the house.
Dr. Patricia Wong, a dermatologist in private practice in Palo Alto, specializes in cosmetic and medical dermatology for children, adolescents and adults. For more information, call 473-3173 or visit www.patriciawongmd.com.