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Bed Bugs Bring No Disease Danger

But infestations are rising and tough to get rid of, experts say

TUESDAY, March 31 (HealthDay News) -- Although bed bugs might prevent you from sleeping soundly, the good news is that their bites don't appear to transmit illness, a new report finds.

Previously, some research had suggested that because bed bugs feed on blood, they might transmit certain illnesses. But, in the April 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers reviewed all of the studies done on the pesky critters to date and found no evidence of disease transmission.

They did find that some people have reactions to the bites, but these reactions are usually short-lived.

"While there is a nuisance effect from bed bug bites, the public health significance is minimal," said study author Jerome Goddard, an associate professor of entomology at Mississippi State University in Jackson. "It's not good. Nobody wants to have blood sucked out of them, but in the scheme of things, they're not carrying malaria or anything like that."

Goddard and his colleague, Dr. Richard deShazo from the University of Mississippi Medical Center, reviewed 53 studies on bed bugs published over the past 50 years.

Interestingly, they found that only about half of the people who are bitten show signs of a bite. And, for those who do react, the reaction can vary from a slight red spot that's intensely itchy like a mosquito bite to anaphylactic shock (a life-threatening allergic reaction), according to Goddard. But, he noted, anaphylactic shock is very rare.

The not-so-good news from this study was that infestations of bed bugs are on the rise all over the world, and these insects are becoming more resistant to pesticides.

For example, in San Francisco, reports of bed bug infestations doubled between 2004 and 2006, according to the study. In Toronto, during a six month period, reports of bed bugs jumped 100 percent in 2002, and in Austria, the number of bed bug samples submitted to the government went up 400 percent from during 2001 to 2004 compared to 1997 to 2000, reported the study.

"They're extremely difficult to get rid of, and they're not going away anytime soon," said Goddard. "They can live for a year without food, and they're becoming resistant to many of the pesticides used to kill them."

Greg Baumann, senior scientist and vice president of technical services for the National Pest Management Association, said that bed bugs are tough, but not impossible, to get rid of.

"It's not something a homeowner wants to do on their own, because bed bugs are very elusive. They can hide in the smallest of cracks and they're great hitchhikers. Professionals will perform a thorough inspection and develop a treatment program. And, even with the best technician, it may take more than one visit."

And, contrary to what many people believe, bed bug infestations have nothing to do with cleanliness. "They just come in on people's belongings. They're in the luggage and they crawl out. It can happen in a five-star hotel," said Goddard.

So, how can you keep these critters out of your bed? Goddard said that any time he stays in a hotel, the first thing he does is put his suitcases down in the bathroom. Then he pulls back the sheets and checks the seam of the mattress, looking for bugs or little black spots. Then, he looks at the box spring for the same type of evidence. If you see any evidence of bugs, ask for another room immediately, he said.

More information

Learn more about bed bugs from Cornell University.

Keeping Bed Bugs at Bay

Any time you travel, you're at risk of picking up bed bugs -- even in the ritziest of hotels, according to the experts. So, if you're traveling, these tips from Greg Baumann, a senior scientist with the National Pest Management Association, may help you keep these critters from crawling into your bed:

  • Check the bed and headboard. When you first check in, look for any signs of small blood smears on the sheets. Look at the bed skirts and headboard for signs of bugs or any type of staining. Baumann suggested checking the furniture as well.
  • If you see any evidence of bed bugs, immediately or after sleeping in the bed, contact the hotel management immediately. Baumann said that most hotels have detailed plans in place, and they'll relocate you and take that room out of service right away to address the problem.
  • Check your suitcases when you get home. Even if you're confident that the hotel was clean, your bags probably still spent time pressed up against someone else's luggage while you were traveling.
  • Wash all of your clothing in warm water when you get home. If a bed bug has survived in your clothing, a warm water wash should kill it, said Baumann. It's also a good idea to vacuum your suitcase when you get home.

Baumann said people should, "stay calm about bed bugs, but be vigilant, because they're becoming more and more common."

SOURCES: Jerome Goddard, Ph.D., associate professor, entomology, Mississipi State University, Jackson, Miss.; Greg Baumann, senior scientist and vice president, technical services, National Pest Management Association, Fairfax, Va.; April 1, 2009, Journal of the American Medical Association

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