Of all the insects that are common household pests, bed bugs seem to be the ones that are the subject of the most myths and misunderstandings. Perhaps the concern about disease emanates from the fact that the very nature of the bed bug – as the insect’s common name indeed suggests – is to infest our sleeping accommodations. This means that the insects are potentially in close proximity to us for many hours out of each 24 hour cycle. There is no doubt that this fact can lead to a distinctive “ick” factor that may cue the fear of disease.
But They Bite!
Another reason why we may fear disease transmission from bed bugs may emanate from the fact that these insects do in fact leave bites behind. This is a natural part of the feeding cycle for the bugs – they thrive on the blood from warm-blooded organisms such as humans as well as cats, dogs, mice, and even hamsters.
We are used to assuming that insect bites are a vector – the scientific term for a disease pathway. Certainly mosquito bites can transmit a number of diseases including yellow fever and malaria. Lyme’s disease is caused by the bite of a common field tick. It only seems logical to assume that if we are being bitten by an insect, disease transmission is a distinct possibility.
In the case of bed bugs, however, their bites do not in fact transmit any diseases to humans. In medical parlance, the bite of a bed bug is not a direct vector. This conclusion is based not only on the experience of generations of bite sufferers, but also on official scientific research conducted by the World Health Organization, an august body by any standard.
Then Why are Bites a Problem?
In short, bed bug bites are considered a problem because they are highly uncomfortable even though they will not literally make you sick. In order to draw out blood, the bed bug will inject into the bite a small amount of a chemical it naturally secretes. This causes the blood to flow better, which is of course a good circumstance from the point of view of the bug in question.
The chemical, however, is not so advantageous for the humans who suffer the bite. It causes the bite to develop a low level irritation and take on the appearance of a tiny welt, becoming red and swollen. Usually these effects occur only to a small degree. However, some people are more sensitive than others to the chemical secretion of the bed bug; they may experience higher levels of discomfort and even pain at the bite sites.
The best treatment for a bed bit is to wash it with soapy water, rinsing thoroughly before applying ice, an antihistamine cream product, or both.
It turns out, then, that bed bug bites do not directly (in most cases) translate disease. They are however uncomfortable enough that those who suffer from an infestation will want to make sure to have it eradicated as rapidly as possible.
Now, traditionally, bed bugs do not carry disease. But there may be SOME cases where they can carry infectious bacteria on their bodies which may spread to humans, especially in over crowded areas. Notably, there was a recent study done by a group of Canadian scientists that did show bed bugs have been linked to the carrying of MRSA (bacteria associated with Staph Infections).