Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed-bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
I've spent the last eight or so months describing my personal battle with bed bugs. Now that my adventure has largely tapered off (a future column will discuss the lingering mental effects), I turn my attention to those folks who have bed bug anxiety rather than the actual pests themselves—and how their fear is fueled by hype, hysteria and lack of concrete information.
After reading an early column, a friend asked me, “Can you write about bed-bug anxiety for the worried well among us, who pounce on every speck of dirt on the sheets?” I vowed to do so, and what better time than when everyone is freaking out about MRSA-carrying bed bugs? (MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a species of bacteria that is resistant to methicillin-related antibiotics.)
Recent reports have highlighted the finding of this and another antibiotic-resistant microbe strain in some bed bugs taken off the clothing of people in a downtrodden area of Vancouver. This has led to the inevitable media scare. Now, half the U.S. thinks that if they get bed bugs they’ll die, while the other half’s eyes are glazed over and they are not inspecting. (That means if they get bed bugs and don’t react to bites, they may not know it for a while, which could lead to the very thing everyone fears—an infestation so intrusive that you spend thousands of dollars to eradicate it.)
But like many findings, this is preliminary and has been labeled by the experts out there as needing further research. No one is saying that these things will inject MRSA into your bloodstream.
"Studies still have to be undertaken to see if the Staphlococcus and Enterococcus bacteria live on or in the bed bug and if they are viable and can be transferred from the bed bug to the skin of the host and then into the host via a lesion or some other route," bed bug entomologist Lou Sorkin told me when I checked with him. "MRSA has been transferred to people from people. It’s an easily transferrable bacteria even without bed bugs."
Before the MRSA scare (on the eve of what pest-control experts, who stand to gain financially, are drumming up as The Summer of the Bed Bug), there were statements like these:
“I haven't been going to the movies,” e-mailed one friend. “Do you think that's overdoing it?”
I hear this from lots of people, especially men who say their wives are too scared to go to the movies (the plush seats and their crevices being ideal places for these pests to lurk). This is not good for date night, folks. So I tell all of you now: Yes, that is overdoing it. With so many places to catch bed bugs—if your neighbor’s got them, you don’t even have to leave your house—why deprive yourself of entertainment because you fear bed bugs?
There are thousands of bad things that can happen to us. Bed bugs have now been added to the list, but they are by no means the worst thing that can befall a person. (They just feel like it while you're going through it.) Thus your best approach to the threat is to minimize it: Inspect monthly, do your best to prevent them, and get on with your life, is what I told this friend.
But my movie-phobic friend didn’t stop there.
“I think I'm going to put a lot of my clothes into Ziploc bags,” she wrote.
Now that’s really overkill. For one thing, putting your stuff in plastic bags is not going to prevent bed bugs. It would in fact be beyond ironic to do so, because people getting rid of bed bugs live for the day when they can take things OUT of ziplocks and live normally. If you live as though you're infested, that sort of cancels out not having them.
Besides, ziplocks notwithstanding, if (heaven forbid) your apartment does get them, you will feel as though you have to disinfect the stuff in the ziplocks anyway. You will get paranoid that bugs may have gotten in somehow, that there's a hole in one of the bags or that a seal may not have shut properly.
Much of my stuff was still in plastic when the second bout came along, and even though I knew intellectually that the bugs weren’t in all those things, or even in the unpacked items, that didn’t stop me from treating everything all over again.
To assuage fears, become proactive. Educate yourself. Learn all about how to inspect. Read the resource and FAQ pages on Bedbugger.com. Study the images on the site, or links from there. (I don’t recommend reading the forums unless you’re looking for responses from specific professionals who post there, along with moral support during an infestation. Otherwise you might simply end up itching and worse off psychologically than you were before you started reading.)
The most useful thing to do if you want to prepare to stop the epidemic from coming to your building is to talk with your building management about bed-bug protocols and become a resource. Find experts to give you and fellow tenants seminars on how to detect infestation early and reduce your chances of contracting any bugs at all.
Set out a plan for inspection/treatment the way you would a fire-escape plan. You wouldn't soak all your blankets in water all the time just because you thought there might be a fire, would you?
Bed bugs are gross and hard to get rid of, but that's the worst of it. Recent findings notwithstanding, their biting apparatus is not set up to spread disease directly, and they only massively infest your possessions if they go undetected for a long time. Monthly vigilance, sans drama, will cut the probability of a huge infestation enormously.
Another thing to remember: You don’t automatically have to chuck your belongings if your apartment gets bed bugs. The first thing that one friend asked after telling me her neighbor’s place was infested was, “When do I throw out all my stuff?” That should only be done as a last resort. Again, if you are vigilant and informed and inspect regularly, an infestation probably will not get that far.
What is vital to know is that if you are throwing out your things, they should be wrapped and labeled at the very least before you bring them to the curb, since you don’t want to wish the bugs on someone else who may come into contact with your stuff as it wends its way to the landfill.
Vigilance is not unlike monthly breast exams: If you do it regularly, you notice something one month that wasn't there the month before, because you are well acquainted with how things should look and feel. If you are inspecting your mattress and box-spring regularly (or anywhere you spend a lot of sedentary time, such as a recliner, favorite armchair or sofa), for example, you will notice if mysterious, sharpie-like dots appear where they weren’t before. (They don’t have to be dark, Sorkin says; some are pale. Moreover, on some surfaces they are small solid bumps. This is where the images come in handy.) You will then know to get professionally inspected and can take it from there.
So, as I admonished my movie-theater-fearing friend, “Go see a flick!”
Next week: Inspect monthly—or else this could be you.
Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News, People, Newsday and other outlets. Bedbugged! is her weekly column about life in the trenches and climbing out with your sanity intact.