Sleep tight…and don’t let the bedbugs bite! This old expression is said to originate from the use of ropes to support a mattress; if tight, sound repose ensued. Regardless, nobody wants bedbugs to bite. Pilots travel frequently so hotels feature prominently in our lives and bedbugs are an escalating problem. For once, as author of this column I don’t just have sympathy, I have empathy; after a New York hotel layover, I was bitten by the bug. Actually, lots of bugs.
Bedbugs are tiny parasitic insects grandly named Cimicidae, that get their jollies feeding on warm mammalian blood. Like mine. No reservations or table manners. Unlike pilots they cannot fly, so let’s be grateful for small mercies. Although first described in 400 B.C., they were just a bad memory until the 1990s, having been obliterated by DDT. Their resurgence may be because of increasing travel, allowing afflicted people to spread bugs, pesticide resistance, or infested yard-sale purchases. And they have returned with a vengeance.
These oval-shape nocturnal nemeses live in mattresses, couches, and other furnishings, When young they are small and almost transparent, but mature adults are brown, one-quarter-inch long and half that across, the size of an apple seed. Dormant until you crawl into bed, one chemically signals to others: “Hey, guys, fresh meat has arrived!” If attacked, you will awake with red spots and welts giving new meaning to the word itchy. Usually bites are treated with steroid or antipruritic ($100 word for “anti-itch”) creams, or, if severe, oral antihistamines and a course of steroids. Avoid scratching the itch to limit secondary infection, which might otherwise need antibiotics. Allergic reactions may amplify symptoms and some psychological impact is possible. Although a range of organisms capable of causing human illness have been found in Cimicidae, there is no clear evidence they can transmit disease.
These are hardy monsters and, while they enjoy feeding every few days, can go without a meal for up to a year and can endure extreme cold to minus 26 degrees F—so cooler Wisconsinites should be fine. At chilly temperatures they dessicate, take a snooze, rehydrating and getting back to work when things warm up. At the other end of the scale it is not until 115 degrees F that they roll over, so Nevada, you are good to go. Although carbon dioxide is not their gas of choice, they can handle it and a pure nitrogen environment does not seem to trouble them. See what we’re up against? In fact, check out their mating habits—males achieve insemination by piercing the female abdomen. This demonstrable lack of lovemaking tenderness begs the question: Is it any wonder they are happy to torture us?
The best treatment is prevention. Never stay at a hotel without checking Internet sites that list complaints (such as www.bedbugregistry.com). Most hotels now have a bedbug eradication protocol, sometimes using dogs to detect these unwelcome freeloaders. Said to smell of cilantro (just like the newest American invasion, stink bugs) there would have to be a lot around to create that aroma, so don’t mistake fancy cooking for an infestation. Because they congregate in crevices and hide from light, remove sheets and mattress covers in the dark using a flashlight to search for live bugs, eggs, discarded bug skins, or blood or bug poop stains. Delightful. Keep luggage off the bed until you’re sure you are safe. Remember, movie theaters, dorms, and libraries are not immune.
If you awake with telltale bites, try to find the culprit, or one of his cousins; trap him in a container (such as the mini-shampoo amenities hotels provide) or on adhesive tape; and inform management to prevent other guests from enduring this misery. If the hotel is uncooperative, call local health authorities—it’s the right thing to do. As soon as possible have a hot shower somewhere free of bugs and when you get home, package clothes and luggage in a plastic bag for later processing or disposal. Do not let your cat or dog greet you enthusiastically or remaining bugs may jump ship, sneaking into your house.
Once a dwelling is infested, seek professional help. Bugs should be vacuumed and pesticides or heat treatment used, disposing of older or damaged soft furnishings. As noted, pesticide resistance is growing dramatically and although spiders, ants, and cockroaches enjoy dining on bedbugs, and some recommend peat fires or various plants and herbs to deter invaders, such remedies might repel the humans even more than the bugs.
French naturalist Jean-Étienne Guettard recommended bedbugs to treat hysteria, and other odd medicinal uses have been proposed. I view bugs as a cause of hysteria, rather than a remedy. In 1996, the Matthew Skoller Band recorded Bad Bed Bugs on their Bone to Pick with You album so maybe that is a fitting way to bid you good night: “Bad bedbugs don’t care who you are, a nobody or a movie star. Bugs over there, bugs over here, bad bedbugs are everywhere. Bad bedbugs, Bad bedbugs, Lord, bad bedbugs. When you go to bed tonight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
Email the author at [email protected]. Dr. Jonathan M. Sackier is a surgeon and private pilot living in Virginia.