This year’s plague, the newly emerged coronavirus, will likely spare many people from being attacked by an ancient scourge: bedbugs. Given the drastic pandemic-induced reductions in travel and nights spent in hotels, motels and other venues outside one’s home, the chances of being bitten by or bringing home these uninvited guests have been greatly curtailed.
But that’s not a license to become complacent about a pesky insect that has been around for at least four millenniums, defied eradication for more than a century and, under normal circumstances, can be extremely challenging to avoid.
Last year, in a survey of 50 American cities by Orkin, a leading extermination company, the nation’s capital proved to be the most heavily infested, followed by Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles. Orkin ranked New York sixth, after Columbus, Ohio, although Terminex gave New York a dubious top billing among 15 American cities. In just five years, from 2004 to 2009, annual complaints about bedbugs to New York’s City Council rose from 537 to 10,985, prompting restrictions on how to discard mattresses to keep from spreading contamination.
Worldwide, professional pest managers have reported, the number of bedbug infestations increased by more than 4,500 percent in the early years of this century. The insects have become especially problematic in the United States, where an estimated one American in five has either been plagued by them personally or knows someone who has been, often at great expense.
A friend, whose suitcase became a bedbug vector apparently during storage in the luggage room of a high-end hotel in upstate New York, found one crawling on her when she donned nightclothes and sat down to read shortly after arriving home in Brooklyn. She spent $1,300 to get the house fumigated, and now routinely quarantines her luggage and its contents out in the freezing cold after a trip to minimize the risk of a repeat invasion.
What my friend didn’t know, however, is that bedbugs can live for many months without feeding on human blood, so waiting even weeks to unpack may not help. Brooklyn backyards and even home freezers may not be cold enough to kill them: Experts recommend minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit.
As an Orkin entomologist, Chelle Hartzer, warned about bedbugs, “They are excellent hitchhikers and they reproduce quickly, which make it nearly impossible to prevent bedbugs.” Increases in both domestic and international travel in recent decades contributed greatly to their current ubiquity. Complicating control efforts, they’ve become resistant to most commonly used insecticides, including pyrethroids.
No one, not the most fastidious among us, is immune to a bedbug infestation. They can be found just about any place where people sit or sleep — cinemas, offices, schools, churches, hospitals, buses, trains, cruise ships and airplanes, as well as in hotels and homes. According to a lengthy report by Australian scientists in Clinical Microbiology Reviews, an entire building’s infestation can start with only a few bedbugs or, possibly, even a single female.
One impregnated female can lay two to five eggs a day.
And the bugs can be devilishly difficult to detect. The eggs of this flightless insect are pearly white and the size of a pinhead; adults are brown or reddish brown (if they had a recent blood meal) and the size of an apple seed, about a quarter-inch long. Two French doctors, writing in The New England Journal of Medicine in June, reported that “between blood meals, bedbugs hide in dark places, such as household cracks and crevices, walls, luggage, bedclothes, mattresses, bedsprings, bed frames, spaces under baseboards, loose or peeling wallpaper, electrical switch plates and conduits for electrical cables.”
Although they can bite painlessly at any time of the day, most often they come out of hiding at night to feast on the blood of their sleeping human hosts, sometimes leaving a telltale trail of blood on bedsheets. The bugs neither hop nor jump, but they can crawl fast — several feet in under a minute — for such a tiny creature.
Bedbugs rarely transmit disease, although excessively scratching their itchy bites can result in secondary infections. (On the positive side, the Australian authors wrote, their scent glands secrete a substance that inhibits microbial growth and that may one day become pharmacologically useful.) Not everyone reacts to bedbug bites, so people sometimes fail to suspect them as the cause of their bites when a bedmate seems not to have been bitten.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated June 24, 2020
What’s the best material for a mask?
Scientists around the country have tried to identify everyday materials that do a good job of filtering microscopic particles. In recent tests, HEPA furnace filters scored high, as did vacuum cleaner bags, fabric similar to flannel pajamas and those of 600-count pillowcases. Other materials tested included layered coffee filters and scarves and bandannas. These scored lower, but still captured a small percentage of particles.
Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?
A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
Along with a maddening itch, knowing that bedbugs are present in one’s home can drive a person crazy. The French scientists reported that “sleep deprivation, insomnia or sleeplessness are commonly associated with infestation.” The psychological toll can sometimes be extreme, resulting in nightmares, anxiety and an inability to function, they added.
“People infested with bedbugs may become socially isolated,” the Australians wrote. “With some individuals, even when the problem is solved, the psychological trauma can develop into a delusionary state, whereby the patients feel bites and insects crawling on them even if the bedbugs have been eliminated.”
Preventing exposure in the first place is the best approach to bedbug control, although I honestly can’t imagine following all the precautionary measures experts suggest in every new place I may sit or sleep. Upon arrival in a hotel room, the advice goes, place your luggage unopened on a rack (not on a bed, floor or upholstered chair). Before unpacking, check the room for telltale bedbug signs like tiny brown spots of their droppings on the sheets and mattress. With your cellphone at the ready, use the room key card or a credit card to run along mattress seams, cracks in the headboard and footboard and folds of upholstered furniture and immediately (act fast, they move quickly) take a picture of any bugs you find to show the manager.
In multiple dwellings, bedbugs can climb from one apartment to the others above or below in the row, so let neighbors know if your apartment becomes infested and seek professional help to eradicate the bugs without delay. One thing you don’t have to do is throw out your clothing, bedding or even the furniture. Launder whatever can be washed in very hot water (140 degrees Fahrenheit — a setting higher than most water heaters) and consult a licensed professional about treating suspect furniture. Avoid pest control products that make exaggerated claims; use only pesticides that have been registered with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Most important: Avoid bringing the bugs into your home by resisting the temptation to “rescue” furniture others have discarded. And don’t tempt others; seal all bedding and cushioned furnishings in plastic when you throw it out.