How Are Bed Bugs Harmful

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What Are the Dangers of Bed Bugs?

Until recent years, bed bugs were no longer considered much of a problem in the U.S. — and the saying "Don’t let the bed bugs bite" was just an old-fashioned phrase whose meaning was almost forgotten — but then bed bugs made a comeback.The bed bug, or Cimex lectularius, gets its nickname from the fact that it often makes its home in people’s beds. Although bed bugs bite and feed on human blood, according to research published in JAMA in 2009, they are not known transmit blood-borne diseases, including HIV or the hepatitis B virus. However, they do pose other dangers to people. If you suspect you have bed bugs, see your doctor for advice and treatment.

Allergic Reaction

The Michigan Department of Community Health notes that the physical manifestations of bed bug bites can vary widely 2.You may not even notice bed bug bites at all. If you do notice bites, you may dismiss them as mosquito bites because the localized redness and swelling may look much like that the mosquito leaves behind.However, if you are sensitive to insect bites of any kind, you may experience an allergic reaction to bed bug bites.This allergic reaction can be mild, only causing itching, skin reddening and irritation.More severe allergic reactions are possible and may require you to treat them with anti-itch ointments or oral corticosteroids and antihistamines.


Bedbug bites alone do not cause infection. However, if you are unable to avoid scratching the bites, infection may result. Scratching bedbug bites can cause openings or breaks in the skin. Bacteria can enter through these breaks and begin to multiply, leading to infection. Your doctor can prescribe creams to apply directly to the bites to prevent infection or advise you to use over-the-counter antiseptic ointments instead.

Respiratory Problems

If you or a member of your household suffers from respiratory problems, the presence of bedbugs can worsen these conditions. Bed bugs shed their outer skins, or casings, as they grow.These casings, along with the bed bugs’ feces, can dry out and become airborne.The Rhode Island Department of Health warns that breathing the cast-off material from bed bugs can aggravate asthma and other respiratory ailments 2.


A case study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2009 describes the case of a 60-year-old man who presented to his doctor with symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia 1. The patient had no physical causes of this anemia but upon examination of his home, the patient’s doctor found an infestation of thousands of bed bugs. Although most people with bed bug bites are unlikely to suffer anemia as a result, it could occur in extreme cases, especially if you have other risk factors for anemia.

Bedbugs Are Pesky but Not Harmful

Researchers Say There’s Little Evidence That Bedbugs Carry Human Diseases

March 31, 2009 — Bedbugs may be getting a bad rap. The blood-sucking bugs have been thought to carry a host of different diseases, but a new review of research on the pesky critters suggests they may be less harmful than previously thought.

Researchers say bedbugs have been known as a human parasite for thousands of years, but scientific studies of the insect have been limited.

In the study, researchers reviewed 53 recent studies on bedbugs and their health and medical effects. The results showed that although bedbugs have been blamed for the spread of up to 40 different human diseases, there is little evidence to suggest they are carriers of human disease.

But the review also showed that there also isn’t any evidence to back any particular treatment for bedbug bites or how to get rid of the insects.

Usually bedbug bites produce "no reaction with a barely visible punctum at the location of the bite," write the researchers. Bedbug bites can itch; if not made worse by scratching this will resolve within a week.

But some people may experience more complex skin reactions. Common treatment options for bothersome bedbug bites include antihistamines, topical corticosteroids, and anti-itching medications.

If the bite area becomes infected, antibiotics may be needed. In severe cases in which bedbug bites affect the body — comparable to a life-threatening allergic reaction — injection of adrenaline may be necessary.

Eradicating the insects is extremely difficult. Researchers say using pesticides to control bedbugs is complicated by increasing resistance to insecticides and health concerns about spraying mattresses with pesticides.

Preventing Bedbug Bites

Bedbug infestations have been on the rise in homes, apartments, hotel rooms, hospitals, and dormitories in the U.S. since 1980 because of international travel, immigration, and increasing insecticide resistance.

Researchers say the best way to prevent bedbug bites is to avoid them because no repellents for the insects have been conclusively proven effective. But the mosquito repellent oil of lemon eucalyptus may help.

Bedbugs and their droppings are easily visible, and the bugs usually don’t travel more than 3 to 6 feet from a suitable human host. Researchers recommend inspecting the following hiding places when sleeping in hotels or other unfamiliar environments:

  • Mattress cords
  • Cracks and crevices in box springs
  • Back of headboards
  • Spaces under baseboards

"Items purchased at garage sales and resale shops, especially mattresses, box springs, and bedding, should be carefully inspected for bed bugs before they are brought into homes because they may initiate an infestation," write researcher Jerome Goddard, PhD, of Mississippi State University, and colleagues inTheJournal of the American Medical Association.

(What do bedbug bites look like? For a closer look at bedbugs, see WebMD’s Bedbugs Slideshow.)


Goddard, J.The Journal of the American Medical Association,April 1, 2009; vol 301: pp 1358-1366.

News release, American Medical Association.

Bed Bugs FAQs

What are bed bugs?

Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) are small, flat, parasitic insects that feed solely on the blood of people and animals while they sleep. Bed bugs are reddish-brown in color, wingless, range from 1mm to 7mm (roughly the size of Lincoln’s head on a penny), and can live several months without a blood meal.

Where are bed bugs found?

Bed bugs are found across the globe from North and South America, to Africa, Asia and Europe. Although the presence of bed bugs has traditionally been seen as a problem in developing countries, it has recently been spreading rapidly in parts of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other parts of Europe. Bed bugs have been found in five-star hotels and resorts and their presence is not determined by the cleanliness of the living conditions where they are found.

Bed bug infestations usually occur around or near the areas where people sleep. These areas include apartments, shelters, rooming houses, hotels, cruise ships, buses, trains, and dorm rooms. They hide during the day in places such as seams of mattresses, box springs, bed frames, headboards, dresser tables, inside cracks or crevices, behind wallpaper, or any other clutter or objects around a bed. Bed bugs have been shown to be able to travel over 100 feet in a night but tend to live within 8 feet of where people sleep.

Do bed bugs spread disease?

Bed bugs are not known to spread disease. Bed bugs can be an annoyance because their presence may cause itching and loss of sleep. Sometimes the itching can lead to excessive scratching that can sometimes increase the chance of a secondary skin infection.

What health risks do bed bugs pose?

A bed bug bite affects each person differently. Bite responses can range from an absence of any physical signs of the bite, to a small bite mark, to a serious allergic reaction. Bed bugs are not considered to be dangerous; however, an allergic reaction to several bites may need medical attention.

What are the signs and symptoms of a bed bug infestation?

One of the easiest ways to identify a bed bug infestation is by the tell-tale bite marks on the face, neck, arms, hands, or any other body parts while sleeping. However, these bite marks may take as long as 14 days to develop in some people so it is important to look for other clues when determining if bed bugs have infested an area. These signs include:

  • the bed bugs’ exoskeletons after molting,
  • bed bugs in the fold of mattresses and sheets,
  • rusty–colored blood spots due to their blood-filled fecal material that they excrete on the mattress or nearby furniture, and
  • a sweet musty odor.

How do I know if I’ve been bitten by a bed bug?

It is hard to tell if you’ve been bitten by a bed bug unless you find bed bugs or signs of infestation. When bed bugs bite, they inject an anesthetic and an anticoagulant that prevents a person from realizing they are being bitten. Most people do not realize they have been bitten until bite marks appear anywhere from one to several days after the initial bite. The bite marks are similar to that of a mosquito or a flea — a slightly swollen and red area that may itch and be irritating. The bite marks may be random or appear in a straight line. Other symptoms of bed bug bites include insomnia, anxiety, and skin problems that arise from profuse scratching of the bites.

Because bed bug bites affect everyone differently, some people may have no reaction and will not develop bite marks or any other visible signs of being bitten. Other people may be allergic to the bed bugs and can react adversely to the bites. These allergic symptoms can include enlarged bite marks, painful swellings at the bite site, and, on rare occasions, anaphylaxis.

How did I get bed bugs?

Bed bugs are experts at hiding. Their slim flat bodies allow them to fit into the smallest of spaces and stay there for long periods of time, even without a blood meal. Bed bugs are usually transported from place to place as people travel. The bed bugs travel in the seams and folds of luggage, overnight bags, folded clothes, bedding, furniture, and anywhere else where they can hide. Most people do not realize they are transporting stow-away bed bugs as they travel from location to location, infecting areas as they travel.

Who is at risk for getting bed bugs?

Everyone is at risk for getting bed bugs when visiting an infected area. However, anyone who travels frequently and shares living and sleeping quarters where other people have previously slept has a higher risk of being bitten and or spreading a bed bug infestation.

How are bed bugs treated and prevented?

Bed bug bites usually do not pose a serious medical threat. The best way to treat a bite is to avoid scratching the area and apply antiseptic creams or lotions and take an antihistamine. Bed bug infestations are commonly treated by insecticide spraying. If you suspect that you have an infestation, contact your landlord or professional pest control company that is experienced with treating bed bugs. The best way to prevent bed bugs is regular inspection for the signs of an infestation.

This information is not meant to be used for self-diagnosis or as a substitute for consultation with a health care provider. If you have any questions about the parasites described above or think that you may have a parasitic infection, consult a health care provider.

Noticing Signs of Bed Bug Bites: Are Their Bites Harmful to Your Body?

Table of Contents

Are Bed Bug Bites Harmful To Your Body?

The last thing you want to think about are parasites that invade your bed at night and feast upon your blood. Unfortunately, these creatures do exist, and dealing with bed bugs can be one of the most annoying, time-consuming tasks you’ll ever tackle. But is a bed bug harmful to your body?

Bed bug in a plastic bag

The very nature of bed bugs is disturbing. In order to pass through each stage of the bed bug life cycle, they must feast on blood. They take refuge in any cracks and crevices within your home they can find.

Once you’re asleep, they come out of the woodwork — sometimes literally — and begin ingesting your blood. If this sounds gross and invasive, that’s because it is. If you have indications of bed bugs, call your local bed bug exterminator immediately.

Transmission of Disease

A similar pest, the pesky mosquito, not only sucks our blood but can carry life-threatening diseases. Due to this fact, many people believe that any insect that feeds on our blood is just as dangerous, which makes dealing with bed bugs an even more important endeavor. Luckily for us, however, this is not true.

Bed bugs have been blamed for the transmission of a number of diseases , but to date, there has been no evidence proving this fact, unlike with every other disease carrier in the insect world. So although there are risks to a bed bug infestation, contracting a life-threatening disease is not one of them.

However, in 2014, Penn Medicine researchers showed that bed bugs, like the “kissing” bug, can transmitTrypanosoma cruzi,the parasite that causes Chagas disease, one of the most prevalent and fatal diseases in the Americas (mainly in rural areas of Latin America).

The researchers have shown that the bed bugs can get and transmit the parasite but they still need to determine whether bed bugs will become a crucial player in spreading Chagas disease.

Bed Bug eggs, Bed Bug fecal staining on the bottom of the couch

“Many people find the itching hard to resist and constant scratching can cause the bite to stick around for a while.”

Annoying Itch

Typically, the biggest problem you’ll have when dealing with bed bugs is the itching and redness they cause. No one wants to wake up in the morning and discover they’ve been an insect’s buffet, and that reminder will stay with you until the itching sensation goes away.

Unfortunately, many people find the itching hard to resist and constant scratching can cause the bite to stick around for a while. For people who have sensitive skin, a bed bug bite can be severely irritating.

How to Notice Bed Bug Bites?

Signs of bed bug bites are easy to mistake for bites from mosquitoes or other insects, so it’s difficult to know for sure if you’ve been bitten by a bed bug. Making it even more challenging to determine if you have signs of bed bug bites or some other pest, bed bugs feed at night while you’re asleep and then go back into hiding.

Since the bite doesn’t hurt, you don’t wake up and catch them in the act. The next morning, you have no idea you’ve been a bed bug meal. Some people have no reaction at all to bed bug bites, so if you have other reasons to suspect you have bed bugs, don’t conclude that you don’t just because you’re not breaking out with the reddish, itchy welts that are the typical signs of bed bug bites.

However, if you do develop irritated bite marks that you can’t explain, there’s no need to panic, but you have a situation that needs attention.

Bed Bug Bites: The Medical Problem

Fortunately, bed bugs are not known to transmit diseases to people or pets. But there are a couple of medical problems you should be aware of:

  • It can be hard to resist scratching the itches that bed bug bites can cause. It’s easy to break the skin, which can lead to infection.
  • Some people are allergic to bed bug bites.

If you have signs of bed bug bites that are causing you discomfort, it’s a good idea to use antibiotic or antiseptic ointments to prevent infections, along with antihistamines or corticosteroids to counter any possible allergic reactions.

You can use over-the-counter medications or visit a doctor to get stronger prescription medications. But a doctor won’t be able to tell you definitively that you’re suffering from bed bug bites. The proof has to come from evidence of bed bugs in your home.

“Bed bugs feed at night while you’re asleep and then go back into hiding. Since the bite doesn’t hurt, you don’t wake up and catch them in the act.”

Call a Bed Bug Exterminator

The obvious first step if you think you have bed bug bites is to look for indications of bed bugs in your apartment—tiny red blots on your sheets, molted bed bug skins, minuscule eggs, and of course the bed bugs themselves.

But bed bugs are one of the hardest pests to identify, locate, and exterminate, even for professionals. If you do find signs of bed bugs, you’re still going to need a professional to get rid of them because it’s almost impossible to locate and reach them all with the proper chemicals without professional expertise and tools.

So your best bet is to call an exterminator to check if you have a problem and get rid of it if you do. Even if you do find signs of bed bugs, you’re still going to need an exterminator to get rid of them because it’s almost impossible to locate and reach them all with the proper chemicals without professional expertise and tools.

What are bedbugs? Are they dangerous?

The blood-sucking insects are the bane of most city-dwellers, but one entomologist proudly keeps a colony at the American Museum of Natural History. Is there any way for the rest of us to steer clear of them?

  • By Brendan Borrell on February 27, 2009

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NEW YORK—Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite? Ifonly. The creepy critters have become such a nuisance here that the city council is mulling legislation that would establish a bedbug task force, ban the sale of used mattresses, train exterminators, and regulate mattress disposal. Just how infested is Gotham? According to theNew York Daily News, there were 22,218 complaints to the city’s 311 hotline about infestations of the blood-sucking hemipterans, a 34 percent jump since this time last year.

And the Big Apple is not alone in its battle against the bugs. In Chicago, the number of official complaints doubled from 900 to 1,650 during that same period, according to theTribune. Boston already slaps warning stickers on discarded furniture and Cincinnati has its own bedbug task force. The bugs, which originally hailed from Europe, were nearly wiped out by DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) in the 1950s. But they have been making a comeback since the insecticide was banned in the U.S. in 1972, a decade after journalist Rachel Carson documented the chemical’s damaging effects on humans and wildlife in her book Silent Spring.

"I’m petrified to turn the lights off at night," one discouraged New Yorker toldNewsdaythis week. "I’m not getting proper sleep, I can’t concentrate on work."

Contrary to their name, bedbugs do not only hang out in beds. They can be found in just about in nook and cranny and can survive for several months without a warm blood meal. The adults are reddish-brown, as about 0.2 inch (five millimeters) long, roughly the height of the numbers on a credit card, and resemble tiny cockroaches; when young, they’re pale and about the size of a pinhead. They leave itchy red skin welts and cause endless grief for their victims.

So what’s the story on these pesky ectoparasites? Is there any surefire way to avoid them—or to get rid of them if they grace you with their vampiric presence?

To find out, we spoke with Louis Sorkin, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History here, who sustains a personal colony of the bugs with his own blood.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What are bedbugs?
The common bedbug isCimex lectularius. They are true bugs [of the order Hemiptera] in that they possess a hinged beak in the front of the head and have a stylet. The stylet is what is pushed through the skin to find a blood vessel inside. The bug sucks until it’s full, and when it’s finished it will go and hide and digest the blood. The body swells up to six times its normal size—from a flat insect to football-shaped.

So are they really just found in beds?
By virtue of its name, people always think bedbugs are found only in beds when, in fact, they fit anywhere their bodies can be hidden and they are as thin as a sheet of paper. They are found in all kinds of furniture, electric appliances, clock radios, computers, printers, behind pictures, books and, of course, bookcases. They are found in cracks and crevices in the wall and within walls as well as in electric outlets, wiring, pipes, plastic and metal conduits.

The problem with calling them a "bedbug" is people have an infestation and they throw out the mattress, but then the critters come back. It’s really a nest or roost-inhabiting insect, and our homes are our roosts.

How do you get bedbugs?
They are good hitchhikers. Often people carry them unknowingly in their luggage. This can be baggage when you are traveling, a briefcase, a backpack or just clothing. They can be picked up in public transportation sometimes or in theaters. They will travel on pipes and wiring and conduits from one apartment to another.

Are they dangerous?
As far as the research shows, they don’t transmit diseases, but they do bite and take blood. People can get secondary infections if they scratch their wounds. In some people, the itching is unbearable. There’s some disagreement as to how many people don’t itch at all. That’s one reason why infestations can be so bad, because people don’t realize they have them

In a few cases, there may be an anaphylactic reaction. It is also possible to have an asthmatic reaction because of the shed skin the bugs leave behind as they grow and die.

How do you know if you have bedbugs?
If you have unexplained bites, that’s a good way to know. You can also look for their blood droppings. The excrement is a liquid that varies from either light brown to black and can either bead up or be absorbed by the surface.

In some cases, we use dogs who are trained to sniff out live bedbugs or past infestations. They’ll pick up on the odor of even one bedbug. We can’t typically smell bed bugs, but we do pick up their alarm pheromone when they are disturbed, which smells like coriander. If there are a lot of live bugs, there may be a smell of blood, like rusty iron.

If you are traveling, you should examine the headboard in your hotel room. The headboard should be taken off and looked into. Massive headboards would be a great condominium complex for bedbugs.

How do you get rid of them?
Often you have to seek the services of a pest control expert who has had a lot of experience. You don’t have to get rid of your furniture. Insecticides can be sprayed on furniture or furniture can be taken apart and sprayed with orange oil or Murphy’s oil, both of which have an insecticidal quality. There are special preparations labeled for mattresses.

The nonchemical ways to remove bedbugs include low-vapor steam treatments, which are done for mattresses and furniture. There are also encasements that you put the mattress box spring in. You starve them to death, but it will take months.

In medieval times, when people would travel to inns with bedbug problems, they would send a pig into the room first so the bedbugs would feed and be satiated.

Don’t you have a colony of bedbugs at the museum?
I’ve only had them for three years, but the original population had been collected from Fort Dix in New Jersey by an Army entomologist in 1971.

I have two eight-ounce jars with about a thousand bugs. There’s a fine screen and I have duct tape around the base of the screw-on lid. Inside, there is just cardboard and paper, because they like to hide between the pieces.

Once a month, I just have to invert them on my arm in order to feed them. I get a bump on my arm for an hour or two and then it goes away. It doesn’t itch.

And why is it that you keep these vile creatures?
They’re mostly for educational purposes. I can show people and reporters all sizes of bedbugs. I also supply bedbugs to the companies that train the bedbug-sniffing dogs.


Brendan Borrell

Brendan Borrellis a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. He writes forBloomberg Businessweek,Nature,Outside,Scientific American, and many other publications, and is the co-author (with ecologist Manuel Molles) of the textbookEnvironment: Science, Issues, Solutions. He traveled to Brazil with the support of the Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @bborrell.

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