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Bed Bugs

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The fall semester for college is nearly upon us and with it many students – both new and old – are leaving home and moving into dormitories. Dorms, like many other communal living situations, may have more than just students occupying them – bed bugs can be found wherever people are found.

You may have thought that bed bugs were made-up, an imaginary bug created for a bedtime rhyme. But bed bugs exist and are becoming a world-wide issue because of international travel. They are blood-feeders, like mosquitoes, and prefer humans over other hosts. They don’t want to walk too far for a meal, so they get as close to their human host as possible, hiding in the mattress, headboard, or behind peeling wallpaper or hanging pictures near the bed. If the person relocates to go sleep on the couch or the reclining chair, the bed bugs will soon follow. They are much too persistent to be thwarted that easily.

Bed bugs begin their search for blood when the lights go out. They gravitate towards any exposed areas of skin outside the covers. This usually includes the neck, upper back, and arms. It may take weeks for your first bite to become an itchy welt, but afterwards your reaction to the bed bug’s saliva will be more immediate. Bites often occur in a row. This is because a bed bug will bite and begin to draw blood, then you may shift in bed which disturbs the insect’s feeding. It will back out, move a bit, and then bite again once you’ve settled down. This can happen several times, resulting in rows of welts. Strangely, some people may not react at all to bed bug bites. Two students in the same infested dorm room may exhibit different symptoms – one may look completely normal while the other may have welts on every square inch of their upper body.

A single blood meal can stretch a bed bug and make it one and a half times its original size, as well as twice as heavy. While bed bugs prefer to eat on a weekly basis, they can survive up to three months without a meal. Most people can’t afford to be out of their house for that long, nor have I heard of people attempting to starve the bugs out. Plus, it’s possible to take them with you to uninfested places if you’re not careful, and the problem can begin anew.

Bed bugs are master hitchhikers, and many people pick up these unwanted houseguests while staying at hotels. It’s a good policy to keep your luggage off the bed until you can determine if your room is bed-bug-free. If you’re worried you might have them in your returning luggage, you can immediately launder and dry your clothes when you get home, or freeze any suspect items so long as they are cold-tolerant. Don’t forget to wash your suitcase outside with warm water and soap, paying special attention to any pockets or creases.

Bed bugs can also come from visiting family members or friends, or from strangers visiting the same places as you. They have been found in waiting rooms, hospitals, and movie theaters.

If it is any consolation, bed bugs are not known to transmit any diseases. Scientific studies show that bed bugs cannot transmit HIV or hepatitis C. Still, diseases or not, bed bugs cause much panic, frustration, and quality of life issues. No one wants to have their blood stolen from them while they sleep, especially in what most would consider the safest place of all – your home, in your bed.

Even as an entomologist, the thought of having bed bugs unnerves me. The smallest and youngest bed bugs can fit into the head of a screw, so just imagine all the places they could be hiding – in a clock, a lamp, or in a nightstand. They can be difficult to find without a thorough inspection and difficult to control without a thorough treatment. If you suspect bed bugs, be sure to have a professional inspect and confirm that bed bugs are the issue before starting a control program.