A recent story based on an interview about our recent bed bug research created a bit of a stir. Readers immediately imagined the worst – that we now had evidence that bed bugs not only sucked people’s blood but that they have now learned to bore into a person’s body – even into a brain. That is the kind of stuff that horror movies are based on. The story’s title – “Bed Bugs Found Inside Person’s Head” – certainly captured reader attention. I guess that is what a title is supposed to do, but nothing in the story even remotely suggested that such a gross behavioral adaptation has occurred.
Human nature is to fear the unknown. And fear often sets in motion a whole wave of incorrect facts, false and misleading conclusions, and absurd theories. Such has been the case with bed bugs. Bed bugs re-entered American society as a virtually unknown pest at the beginning of the 21st century and quickly vaulted themselves to contend as the No. 1 urban pest. They created significant fear, and now the public domain is now full of incorrect information, urban myths, and downright untruths as a result of confusion and misconceptions about bed bugs.
Understanding the facts about bed bugs (or any pest) is essential if we are to separate fact from fiction. Let’s examine what we know for sure about bed bugs, and their national resurgence first and then I will explain why our recent research says they can get into your head.
Bed bugs actually were a very common pest throughout the world until about 1940, when new, long-lasting pesticides (especially DDT) were introduced. DDT was inexpensive, offered a very long residual control, and killed a broad spectrum of insects. It was thought to be a “miracle” pesticide, and so became a very common solution to pests in agriculture, the yard and garden, homes and buildings, and even in hospitals. DDT also was extremely effective against bed bugs.
At the same time, portable washing machines made it possible for Americans to do laundry more frequently and efficiently, which negatively affected bed bug survival. This one-two punch meant that bed bugs did not stand a chance. By the mid 1900s, they became rare in the United States for nearly 50 years.
However, it turned out that DDT was not a miracle pesticide after all and the United States banned it in 1972. At the same time, worldwide travel became more common and accessible, and buying and selling of used furniture grew in popularity. These and other changes set the stage for the unprecedented resurgence of bed bugs across the continent. Within a single decade (beginning at the turn of the 20th century) bed bugs re-entered the public scene to become the most feared household insect pest – beating out ants, termites, cockroaches, and surpassing the deadliest disease-transmitting public health pests (ticks, lice, fleas, and even mosquitoes).
The rate of bed bug resurgence rate was unheard of. From a virtually unknown public pest, in the second half of the 20th century, to today where most people in the country have either experienced bed bugs themselves or personally know of someone who has. Every city or town in the country has incidences of bed bugs in hotels, family residences, churches, nursing homes, schools, hospitals, and even libraries.
The natural fallout of such a dramatic pest resurgence in the absence of well-known facts about what they are, how they spread, and what harm they may bring to people has created considerable confusion. Unfortunately, much of the information available online about bed bug biology and suggestions about how to battle these little parasites lacks credibility. Social media is replete with wild stories about bed bug infestations, opinions about the source of infestations, unfounded theories of why they are present, and outlandish suggestions for how to control this stealthy pest.
On the other hand, insect scientists have worked hard to provide the public with accurate information about bed bug control. Effective pesticides have been found, control techniques, such as heat treatments discovered, and preventative devices, including bed encasements and monitoring tools have been demonstrated. This information has been disseminated these via fact sheets, on web sites, and preached in educational summits, seminars, and workshops. When used in combination by professional pest managers, these techniques can take bed bugs out of a home or building.
Unfortunately, controlling bed bugs is expensive. Professional pest managers cite the increasing costs of equipment, travel time, and labor, as well as concerns about liability, guarantees, employee training, and the need for follow-up visits as reasons for the high costs associated with bed bug management.
Having bed bugs is never a pleasant thing, but it is most unfortunate for those who cannot afford professional bed bug control. In the end, their homes go untreated, leading to more entrenched infestations and ultimately increasing the spread of bed bugs in our communities. It is those who do not have the means to effectively and definitely rid their homes of bed bugs who so often turn to unproven control recommendations passed around on social media. Using vinegar, Windex, rubbing alcohol, or even gasoline or diesel fuel are both ineffective and even dangerous. And Bed bug-related frustrations also intensify the already rampant misuse of pesticides – using restricted or outdoor only products such as fumigants or farm or garden insecticides inside the home. Applying such products where people live, and even worse, to beds where people sleep clearly outweigh any health risks caused by the bed bugs themselves.
So, what are the harmful effects of bed bugs on human health? Bed bugs are external parasites that bite and pierce the skin to draw blood. Skin reactions to bed bug bites vary drastically from person to person but most often present as red welts, that may itch for several days. Scratching further irritates the itching sensation, and may eventually result in secondary infections.
What is known is that the immediate health effects of bed bug bites vary widely, depending upon an individual’s immune response. Prolonged exposure to bed bug infestations results in increased sensitivity. Severe discomfort and itching may occur. Repeated bug bites over a period of several weeks may cause some people to become sensitive to bed bug bites – resulting in ever-intensive allergic responses. Anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction, can sometimes follow.
Bed bugs are not known to transmit disease-causing pathogens through their own feeding, but it has been documented that they may harbor many harmful pathogens on or in their bodies. It seems probable that heavy infestations of bed bugs and their associated fecal matter, might facilitate the transfer of pathogens via open sores leading to further health problems.
Diminished physical health is not the only potential harm caused by bed bug infestations, however. Sociologists have associated mental and emotional costs. The prospect of being attacked by bloodthirsty parasites, especially when we are at our most vulnerable, may evoke a terror slightly short of death itself.
If friends, family members, or co-workers learn of an infestation, the social stigma and repercussions of being identified as a “bed bug carrier” can lead to bizarre and self-destructive behaviors. Fear of being identified by peers as ‘bed bug contaminated’ is a leading cause of not only extreme and dangerous eradication measures but also ‘non-reports.’ When residents fear the consequences of reporting their infestation more than they fear the infestation itself, bed bugs spread.
For some, the fear spreading bed bugs, may elicit very destructive social distancing or isolating behaviors. They may ban themselves from interacting with others. Believing that their ‘loss of society’ will help curb the spread of bed bugs, they not only shut themselves in, but shut others out as well. Such self-imposed quarantines can harm a person’s sense of well-being and mental health and can exacerbate feelings of abandonment and depression.
In our own studies, we found that bed bug infestations heavily influence decisions about where people go, who and how they interact, and who they allow into their homes. There is a direct correlation between these activities and bed bug infestations. An interesting and unexpected finding was that some individuals reported increased social distancing and depression even when their bed bug infestation was imagined.
Our survey began by asking if individuals thought they had a bed bug infestation. We followed the survey with a careful physical inspection of the residence. What we found was that a significant number of people who mistakenly thought their home was infested – when it was not, also showed increased depression and social distancing behaviors.
It was this finding that led to the press release with the infamous title, “Bed Bugs Now Inside Peoples Head.” I presented it as proof of how bed bugs can not only get into homes and beds but also into people’s heads as well. Not physically, of course, but into their psyche. For some people, perception is reality.