Ask The Doctor

Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite

Dear Dr. Garner,

Last week, my friend, who lives in Manhattan, called me to ask if she could sleep over. I said sure, but when I asked her why, she just said she would tell me later. The next morning, she told me that her apartment had bed bugs.

I sent everything out to the laundry to clean. My question is, how I can prevent an invasion of bed bugs in my apartment?

Bed Bugs in Bushwick


Dear Bed Bugs,

Unfortunately, your friend may have exposed your apartment to the problem. If she had told you about the issue, you could have taken some precautions, but as they say, let’s deal with the cards you were dealt.

First, just what are bed bugs?

They are small insects that feed on the blood of mammals, which include humans. They like the blood of birds as well.

The adult bed bug is oval, without wings and has a rusty red color. They are about a quarter of an inch in length.

You will be able to see them with the naked eye. They have small antennae and eyes and are very flat. When they feed, their bodies expand and become more red as they take in your blood.

The bed bugs feed mostly at night when people are sleeping.

I have had many people come to me with pimple-like areas on their skin asking if they are bed-bug bites. They also want to know what the bite feels like.

Fortunately, the bites do not hurt, and most people don’t get awakened from sleep. This is because the saliva of the bed bug contains an anesthetic which numbs the skin at the time of the bite. The bites may end up as large itchy welts on the skin.

They do not cause any medical harm to humans and are not dangerous. They don’t spread disease. Those allergic to the bites may have larger welts.

The bed bugs live about 10 months and can survive for weeks to months without feeding.

The home becomes infested when someone brings them in from their clothing, furniture or luggage. The bed bugs hide in or near beds and bedroom furniture. You should check the mattress, frame and box spring. They may be behind headboards, inside night stands and cracks in plaster and flooring.

They may also hide in piles of books, papers, boxes and other clutter near sleeping areas.

If you see any sign of bed bugs, then a professional exterminator should be called.

He or she will do a thorough inspection to check for the bugs in their hiding places.

Once infestation has been found, approved insecticides must be applied. Complete control is difficult to achieve with the first treatment. Expect a second application.

There are some things you can do yourself.

• When it is colder than 25 degrees, (I hope you get the problem under control sooner than winter) place the mattress and furniture outside for several hours to kill the bed bugs.

• Wash all bedding, draperies and clothing in hot water.

• Vacuum and steam-clean carpets.

• Check all furniture, pulling out the drawers to look for signs of the critters.

• Don’t try to apply insecticide yourself. It is best to get a professional, both for safety and completeness of the job.

• If you find bed bugs on the mattress, buy a waterproof zippered mattress cover. These covers often are labeled “allergen rated” or “for dust mites.”

Scrub the mattress seams with a stiff brush to dislodge bed bugs and any eggs.

Then enclose the mattress in the cover for at least one year. This will trap any remaining bed bugs and the cover will kill them.

• Consider throwing out any box bedsprings that show signs of infestation.

• Repair any cracks in plaster and all loosened wall paper, especially in bedrooms.

• You should look for some of the signs of infestation, such as bed bug skins, blood spots on the sheets or the bugs themselves.

You can put down insect traps with sticky surfaces to help catch and identify one.

You can compare pictures of what you have caught to pictures available in the library or on the Internet. If you would like to send me a picture, I would be happy to verify if it is a bed bug.

There are some myths regarding bed bugs that I would like to debunk. First, getting bed bugs has nothing to do with being dirty. This is the most prevalent myth. One gets bed bugs by exposure and coming in contact with a source, such as your friend. Many places that become infested are among the most immaculate. People who travel internationally are at greatest risk for exposure.

Another myth is that if one person gets bitten, but his or her partner did not, then it must not be bed bugs. The truth is that everyone responds differently. It depends on how allergic you are to the bed bug. Some may have welts; some may have nothing.

Even after the bed bugs have been exterminated, it is still possible to feel itching without having any bed bugs still around. This is related not to living bed bugs but to an allergic reaction to some of their microscopic parts that still may remain after they have all been exterminated.

These little bugs are able to travel (walk, not fly) more than 20 feet, which means adjacent apartments may infect one another.

Good luck dealing with this issue.[hr] Dr. Steven Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on The NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Channel 97 Time Warner and Channel 30 Cablevision.

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