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Columnist
Resurgent bedbugs don't spread disease, just the willies
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist

Resistant to some pesticides and transported in the luggage of world travelers, the small but resilient bedbug is experiencing "an alarming resurgence" in the United States.

 

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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Published: 9/20/2010 2:03 PM | Updated: 9/22/2010 1:23 PM

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The most common question overheard at the sold-out North American Bed Bug Summit summit starting today in Rosemont might just be, "How's your hotel?"

Once relegated to third-world nations, grandparents' memories and old nursery rhymes, bedbugs have enjoyed a resurgence more dramatic and surprising than the Bears' Super Bowl hopes. The bloodsucking pests are popping up everywhere from homeless shelters to four-star hotels.

That's creepy news in the suburbs, where every business trip, softball tourney, college dorm, summer camp or sleepover could result in a bedbug infestation at home.

"Ten years ago we got about one call about bedbugs a year, and now we get at least one call a day," says Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Bedbugs have been around as long as man. Wingless and only about a quarter-inch long, the bugs used to hide in caves and drink the blood of the bats that lived there. When early man moved into those caves, some of the bugs developed a thirst for human blood and evolved into a separate species with the scientific name of Cimex Lectularius.

"They were a big deal 60 or 70 years ago," says Curt Colwell, entomologist with the Illinois Department of Public Health. "They were more of a big deal than cockroaches."

Pesticides curbed the bedbug populations after World War II.

"I'm an entomologist and up until about the last five years, I saw one or two bedbugs in my life, and they were dead," says Colwell.

The United States is experiencing "an alarming resurgence in the population of bedbugs," according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because the pests have developed a resistance to pesticides and are able to spread so much faster because of increased international travel.

"Bedbugs are hitchhikers in backpacks and purses," says Colwell, warning that the tiny bugs hide and lay eggs in the crevices of suitcases, mattresses, box springs, curtains, baseboards, picture frames, peeling wallpaper, furniture, door frames, baseboards, clothes and other hiding places. "You could easily bring one or a dozen back in your luggage from an infected hotel."

The bugs don't spread malaria or other blood-borne diseases. Their beaklike mouths generally pierce the skin without causing enough pain to wake their victims.

"They come out at 2 in the morning when you are least alert, feed on you for 5 minutes or so, and then go back into hiding," Colwell says. "A high percentage of people don't react at all."

A few might react with quarter-size welts that could develop a secondary infection. Others may only discover the problem after getting a whiff of a musty raspberry fragrance, finding tiny exoskeletons left by molting bugs or seeing the rusty blood spots of bedbug fecal matter left on their bed. None of which generally causes physical health problems, but certainly weighs on the mind.

"It's an emotional problem because there is no one out there who wants bugs feeding on them during the night," Colwell says, noting the bugs lead to anxiety and insomnia. Since bedbugs don't spread diseases, most public health departments (including Illinois') don't require residents, landlords or hotels to report infestations.

"That's sort of part of the problem. There is nothing that says who is responsible," Colwell says. Not only are experts unsure of all the areas with bedbugs or how many there are, "we don't have it defined what percent of bedbugs are resistant (to pesticides) or to what degree they are resistant."

While professional pest experts generally can eliminate a bedbug infestation, the bugs are hardy and, if the conditions are right, can survive for more than a year between feedings, Colwell says. They can crawl along pipes to go between rooms and "will sometimes walk underneath your door, walk down the hall and go under somebody else's door."

Hotels and motels have developed a protocol for preventing and eliminating bedbugs, says Jim Gould, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Woodfield, regional vice president of operations for Portfolio Hotels and Resorts, and chairman of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association.

"The hotel association provides training on bedbugs, information to our members and services that helps remove bedbugs," says Gould, who adds that he's only heard of bedbugs at one suburban hotel, which is no longer in business. "We want to help make sure bedbugs are not an issue at hotels. It's a vigilant effort on the part of the housekeepers knowing what to look for when they clean the room."

Lots of folks get the willies just thinking about bedbugs, which can set off the same alarms in suburban households as kids with head lice.

"Bedbugs are worse because you know where the lice are. They are on your head," Colwell says, noting lice die after a few days off a head. "Bedbugs can be everywhere."

Prevention is easier and cheaper than removal, which often costs as much as $1,000, Colwell says. Since the bugs don't chew through barriers, a simple mattress cover can confine any bugs to your mattress, where they eventually will die. But Colwell takes further precautions whenever he spends the night at a hotel.

"The first thing I do is pull the headrest away from the wall (and look for bedbugs)," Colwell says. "I take in as little as possible, and what I bring in I seal in garbage bags overnight, or even double-bag it."

Even with the resurgence, most people have never seen a bedbug. Some probably assumed bedbugs were a myth akin to monsters under the bed after hearing the "Sleep tight, and don't let the bedbugs bite" mantra as kids.

"We all grew up listening to that and not know what it really meant," Colwell says. "Now we do."