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Skin Care Articles

The Bedbug Scourge

By Stephen M. Schleicher, MD

Bedbugs are upon us! A headline in the August 15, 2010 Philadelphia Inquirer reads: The most difficult, challenging pest problem of our generation: Across America, bedbugs are biting. This was followed a mere four days later by an article in USA Today entitled: More offices see bedbug infestations. Yikes.

Bedbugs are indeed on the rise, sparing no socioeconomic group. Several reasons for this are hypothesized including increased travel (hitchhiking in luggage), immigration, increased exchange of second-hand furniture, and resistance to common insecticides. NBC Nightly News reported that in some parts of the country complaints involving bedbugs are up 500%.  New York City has recently allocated $500,000 in an attempt to rid the city of these critters. Good luck. Bedbugs have been identified not only in luxury hotels and condominiums but in movie theaters as well. And in Philadelphia bedbugs have been found in the offices of the Internal Revenue Service.

Identifying bedbugs is not an easy task.  The insects are small and flat, less than one-quarter of an inch in diameter. One’s best chance of finding them is to wake up in the middle of the night and shine a flashlight on the bed sheets. Infestation can also be recognized by the presence of red-brown specks (bedbug excrement) on sheets and mattress seams. The bugs can also live in cracks and crevices and under baseboards.  Specially trained bedbug-sniffing dogs are in high demand, and pricey; business and homeowners are shelling out up to $1,000 for their services.

The initial bedbug bite goes unnoticed and intense itching develops later, the result of an allergic reaction. Often the bites are arranged in groups of three, appetizingly referred to as breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Bedbugs avoid light and roam at night, drawn to a human host by body heat. They dine (suck blood) for five to ten minutes during which time their body weight swells some 200 percent, and their length increases by 50 percent.

Treating individual bedbug bites is easy. A topical steroid cream and oral antihistamines will do the trick. Ridding one’s residence or workplace is the hard part. Bedbugs can survive for up to a year after a single meal. Scrub infested areas with a stiff brush, and vacuum cracks and crevices. Use of special mattress bags will entomb the bugs and eventually kill them but will not address their ensconcement within wall cracks and crevices. Heat kills bed bugs and their eggs so entities such as clothes, bedding and stuffed animals are best placed in a clothes dryer on the highest setting for at least 20 minutes. Bedbugs are developing resistance to commonly used pesticides and bug bombs are not effective. A professional exterminator is often the best option usually requiring more than one visit. Even then, eradication is challenging. According to the union head representing the 4,000 employees of the Philadelphia IRS, eight months after discovering the problem “the place is still bugged”.

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