Sleep tight? Bed bugs bite

By Connie Jeske Crane on March 26, 2012
It was supposed to be a fun visit. Two sisters indulging in a few laughs, foodie pleasures, good wine. But minutes after watching her younger sibling run upstairs to ditch her luggage in her room, Toronto resident Rachel* saw her reappear, alarmed: “There are bugs crawling all over your wall.” Rachel, who has a semi-detached house in a nice neighbourhood, didn’t know what they were. “My sister and I killed all of these bugs that were just crawling out of this hole and climbing onto the wall. And then I thought, ‘It’s strange because there’s blood.’” 

It wasn’t a mystery for long. Neighbours in the adjoining home informed Rachel and her husband they had just had the house treated after discovering – OMG! – bed bugs. Apparently, the spray had sent the brownish apple seed sized bugs streaming through openings in the shared wall. Rachel and her family were plunged into a months-long nightmare. 

North America is battling a nasty bed bug resurgence. “From 1950 to about 2000, we basically did not even hear about bed bugs,” says Mark Nelder, an Issues Analyst with Public Health Ontario. But since then bed bugs have appeared in high-end hotels, modest apartments and office towers. “They are indeed across Canada, right from B.C. to Newfoundland,” says Mark. “The bugs don’t discriminate. They’re plaguing people at all socio-economic levels.” 

Why the rise? Experts credit several factors – our love of global travel and bed bugs’ increasing pesticide resistance. As well, “In certain instances, high-density urban life tends to help the spread,” says Mark. 

It’s tempting to panic. Who wants sneaky pests that suck your blood at night, multiply like rabbits, and are fiendishly difficult to get rid of? But has fear gotten the better of us? More and more, says Sandy Costa of Toronto’s GreenLeaf Pest Control. Her company hears from frantic callers who don’t actually have bed bugs. “People panic now when they have an itch, or when their skin is dry.” 

How much of a threat are bed bugs to the average Canadian family? We asked the experts for their tips and advice. 

Education

There’s no doubt about it. Bed bugs are serious business. “I think everybody should be concerned,” says Mark. The first step in the new battle is education. Before 1950, “everybody lived with bed bugs. They knew about them, they knew what they looked like,” says Mark. Today, we need to relearn these things and dispel the myths. Are bed bugs visible to the naked eye? Can they hide in items like tables and other furniture? (Yes and yes, in case you’re unsure.) 

At Rachel’s house, bed bugs were hard to miss. But often, it’s easy to overlook the signs, especially at first. Bed bugs are sneaky. They hide during the day and can survive without a blood meal for more than a year. Also, they deliver a small amount of anesthetic when they feed, so people often don’t wake up when bitten. Many don’t have skin reactions either. Yet bed bugs do leave calling cards. If you can detect them early, or at a later stage via their droppings, shed skins or a live bug, getting rid of them is far easier. “That’s where education really comes in,” says Sandy. 

Understandably, provincial bed bug initiatives have made public education a huge priority. In 2011, the Ontario government committed $5 million to public education around bed bugs. Similarly, Manitoba announced a $770,000 plan. 

Even if you’re struggling through an infestation, Rachel says education and a ton of research helps “take some of the anxiety off.” For example, fi nding out bed bugs can’t fl y, are pretty lazy travellers, and only come out at night helped Rachel survive the treatment period. “Just think if they could fl y and loved light!” she adds with a nervous laugh. (For more details, see the “Avoiding bed bugs 101” article.

Prevention

Skin crawling yet? Want to avoid these critters? “From a prevention standpoint,” says Sandy, “there’s a bunch of things that you can do.” 

First off, know when you’re at risk. In public settings like movie theatres, offices, hospitals, and public transit, be vigilant. When travelling, inspect hotel rooms first. Workers in fields such as healthcare, social work, and travel may want to take extra precautions. And since bed bugs can migrate, residents in multi-unit housing could get busy with a caulking gun, and consider periodic inspections and inexpensive monitors. (For more tips, see the “Avoiding bed bugs 101” article.) 

Anna* is a great example of how far prevention can take you. A Toronto mom and frontline worker with the homeless, she’s heard bed bug tales from clients since 2003. “Then we started to see them at work a few years ago, in our offices, around my desk. I had never seen one up close before, so that really just put terror into me, you know?” 

When several colleagues brought bed bugs into their homes, Anna resolved that she “just [couldn’t] be one of the people to bring them home … The idea of having to spray at home is something that still frightens me because my son has asthma. And you don’t necessarily want to have to continuously bomb your house with chemicals.” 

Anna is rigorous. At work, she keeps her coat and hat in a plastic bag. “I keep separate work clothes and home clothes. I change out of my work clothes when I get home and bag them. I’ve bought encasements for all of my mattresses.” Anna admits she’s considered paranoid even by co-workers, but it’s hard to argue with results. She’s never brought bed bugs home.

Treatment

In the worst case, if you do end up having bed bugs, Sandy always tells people, “The key thing is not to panic…it takes some work but it can be resolved.” She also reminds clients that bed bugs are not known to spread disease. 

As for Mark Nelder, he says act quickly, but not too quickly. He recommends hiring a reliable pest control professional. “There are companies out there just jumping on the bandwagon now. And there’s some easy money to be made off of people’s fears.” Choose a company that’s licensed and deals specifically with bed bugs. You might think pesticides are the big gun treatment here, but what you really want to look for is a company with an integrated pest management (IPM) approach, says Mark. Most authorities don’t consider pesticides on their own as a comprehensive treatment. “You can’t have a one-trick pony type of treatment,” he says.

As Sandy explains, “All insecticidal sprays that are used in Canada are not ovicidal, which means they don’t kill any eggs.” An IPM approach not only helps reduce reliance on pesticides – a good thing in light of bed bugs’ growing pesticide resistance – but also ensures bugs are killed at all stages of life. Finally, be especially vigilant with pesticides. “Children are often more susceptible to toxic effect than adults. We should never be spraying beds, especially beds of kids or their cribs, because they’ll be exposed to way too much pesticide,” Mark says. 

A successful approach involves detection, prep work on the homeowner’s part (including laundry and decluttering), repeat multi-pronged treatments and follow-up inspections. Treatment normally involves some combination of: 

  • proper removal of infested items 
  • high-heat laundering 
  • vacuuming 
  • steam 
  • thermal heat 
  • application of pesticides and/or diatomaceous earth (a non-toxic desiccant).

An inspection by a qualified inspector or canine detection unit should follow for peace of mind for the homeowner. 

While Mark is optimistic bed bugs can be managed, he doesn’t think they’ll disappear any time soon. “This is something that is back in our lives.” 

Rachel’s household has been bed bug free for a couple of years now, but she says it cost her family much time, effort, and expense – not to mention almost unbearable anxiety. “You have this fear that they’re going to take over your house and your life. You do! You go to this sort of paranoid place and point.” But, she concludes slowly, “I would just say to anyone going through it, ‘You can do it. You can get through it.’” 

* Names withheld upon request.


Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February/March 2012.

By Connie Jeske Crane| March 26, 2012
  Health

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