Bed bugs beware!

"Good night, sleep tight; don't let the bed bugs bite!"

As a child, this light-hearted refrain was often heard in our household. For me, bed bugs occupied an idiosyncratic existence alongside the tooth fairy, the boogeyman, and other imaginary characters that lived only in folktales and bedtime stories.

Years later, my sister and I were rather taken by surprise that bed bugs did, in fact, exist. Neither cute nor benign, they were rather more like manifestations of a million little monsters that hid under the bed in wait to make a meal out of the unsuspecting sleeper.

While visiting the United Kingdom last fall, we arrived at our accommodations in the and were pleased with the friendliness of the staff and the cleanliness of the room, though I noticed a few tiny rust-colored stains on the sheets. Too tired to make a fuss over some innocuous stains, we ignored them and went to sleep.

In the morning, my sister was aghast. She said that she had felt little bugs crawling all over her during the night, and she also found bugs and stains on the sheets of her bed. Later during the day, both she and I developed small, itchy red bumps on our neck, arms, back, and legs.

Upon researching the matter, we discovered that the rust-colored stains were telltale signs of fecal matter from bed bugs after they had been feeding on blood meal. Some bites occurred in a series of three or four bites in a row for when the victim moved while sleeping causing the bug to dislodge and bite again.

As seasoned travelers, my sister and I could not believe that we had encountered the scourge of bedbugs while on holiday to England, of all places. Yet bed bugs occur all over the world, including Alaska. Speak to any property manager in town and each of them will have a plenty of bed bug stories to tell.

“The reason we get bed bugs up here is because people bring them up here,” said Greg Wilkinson, the public information officer for State of Alaska Department of Health Social Services. The insects are skilled hitchhikers and are often transported to hotels and people’s homes via luggage and clothing. Bed bugs can live up to several months or even a year without food or water, and can even withstand temperatures below zero for many days.

My sister and I learned the hard way that while initially the bites did not hurt, they later developed into painful swollen red welts. While bed bugs are not known to transmit diseases, their bites can cause allergic reactions that range from mild to severe. Bed bugs can also cause significant mental anguish with cases of delusionary parasitosis causing victims to lose sleep, imagine being covered in bugs, and/or develop obsessive behaviors.

At this time, the state does not consider bed bugs to be a public health problem. “Our department has published a document called the Bed Bug Fact Sheet, but people need to contact professional exterminators if they encounter a problem” said Wilkinson.

Clint McClennan at Alaska Pest Management Inc. has been in the pest control business for over twenty years, eradicating vermin all over Southeast Alaska. In the last four years, he has seen bed bug infestations on the rise. “We’ve been on cruise ships, buses, taxis, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, just about every place you can imagine.” The bugs are not choosy in the luxury of their accommodations so long as they can have access to a human host.

Bed bugs can sometimes be difficult to detect. According to McClennan, bed bugs will not crawl out of their hiding places unless they sense the carbon dioxide and heat signature of their host. When traveling, take the precaution to look for bed bugs behind the headboard or under the mattress. Also search for evidence of rust-colored or black stains on the sheets. If in doubt, ask for another room.

McClennan does offer several preventative measures people can take when they come in from areas they believe are questionable. “If you’ve traveled somewhere or purchase secondhand clothing, put all your clothing in the dryer for twenty minutes on high heat. This will kill the bugs and the eggs.” Personal items such as DVD’s, electronics, and other heat-sensitive objects can be put in a Ziploc bag and frozen for at least 48 hours.

Early detection of bed bugs is an important key to eradicating them. While a clutter does not necessarily attract bed bugs, it does provide plenty of hiding spaces for them. A tidy household helps make extermination a much smoother process. Regular cleaning and vacuuming also allows a potential problem to be spotted more easily.

McClennan emphasizes that it is important to let the professionals take care of an infestation. Trying to deal with the situation without professional help can worsen an infestation and pose health risks. “I’ve seen people set off bug bombs in their homes. This doesn’t usually work since they only kill on contact, and bed bugs are famous for hiding.” Incomplete eradication efforts can cause pesticide resistance. “If they’re exposed to minor amounts of a pesticide, some can become immune. The next generation does not respond to the pesticide, which means that it will require stronger chemicals to eradicate them.”

McClennan says that he has seen people react in irrational ways to bed bugs, purchasing products over the internet or using household chemicals in extreme ways that have caused fires and other hazards. “Pest control professionals are trained and understand which products work best for the situation and how to ensure safe application.” The type of method used to exterminate an infestation is unique in each situation. Heat, steam, and mechanical techniques are the most common ways.

In case bed bugs crawl their way into your life, McClennan offers sage advice. “In all of human history, we’ve survived worse things. Don’t let bed bugs ruin your life, but do take measures to control and eradicate the problem. Find a trustworthy source to help you through it.”

• Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Bed Bug Fact Sheet can be downloaded at http://hss.state.ak.us/dph/PDFs/fs_BedBugs.pdf

• For more information, visit www.Alaskapestinc.com

• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer based in Juneau. Contact her at jennu.jnu@gmail.com

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