To freak out or not to freak out?
October 4, 2010 11:55 AM   Subscribe

Getting bedbugs from homeless people?

Can even a fleeting amount of contact transmit lice/bedbugs? Was just on NYC subway and a homeless man's jacket landed on my leg. When i got home, I put my clothes in the washing machine and plan to dry them for at least 20 minutes. Is this even necessary or am I being a total drama queen? Can lice and bedbugs be transmitted in seconds? Is there anything else I should do? I can't afford to deal with a bedbug infestation right now. Please help my paranoia go away!
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (17 answers total)
You're being a drama queen. It's fine. Have a cup of tea and watch some videos.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:02 PM on October 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

Chances are another homeless person vacated the seat you were sitting on for the ride home mere seconds before you sat down, and don't even think of what the guy who's holding that pole had in his hand previously. it will toughen up your immune system
posted by kanemano at 12:04 PM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

You're no more likely to get bedbugs from a homeless person than someone who lives on Park Avenue.

Probably even less likely, considering that the person who lives on Park Ave probably has a bed.

Bedbugs are typically spread through luggage and prolonged contact with infested clothing, bedding, or furniture. It would be very, very unlikely that you could get them from brushing up against someone's clothing.
posted by a.steele at 12:13 PM on October 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

You're being paranoid. If you spent a moment thinking about the myriad of pathogens and vermin that travel for free on the subway, a momentary brush with some random person's coat is the least of your worries. Take a deep breath and relax.
posted by ambrosia at 12:24 PM on October 4, 2010

You should be more worried about getting bedbugs if you ever stay at the most luxurious five-star hotel in Manhattan.
posted by John Cohen at 12:25 PM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

[few comments removed - if you can't answer the OPs question without tossing in your own zings, please just wait until you can. thanks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:38 PM on October 4, 2010

You're paranoid, and very very unlikely to get bed bugs. I agree that it seems you are extra-freaking out because the guy is homeless, and that comes across as cruel and unwarranted (a jacket landed on your lap? chill!). But in fairness, I think the others here are dead wrong that a luxury hotel or Park Avenue person is more likely to have bedbugs - bedbugs are prevalent in homeless shelters, and in the event of an infestation, rich people are likely to just throw everything out and buy everything new after spending a fortune on fumigation. Realistically, you are more likely to get bedbugs from a couchsurfer, a traveller staying in a hotel, or someone who buys furniture from craigslist or takes it in off the street (like a college a student). Poor does not equal bedbugs.
posted by molecicco at 12:39 PM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

Leftover Crack, no stranger to squats/homelessness themselves, suggest that parasitic infestation from contact with others' clothing is common. Then again, they're not the New England Journal of Medicine...
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 1:05 PM on October 4, 2010

Actually, bedbug infestation is a horrific Upper East Side problem and is developing into a general US urban menace. It's the sort of thing I tend to worry about a lot too but -- with absolutely no snark intended -- if you're going to be a bug paranoiac, be an equal-opportunity one. The goddamn things are tiny egalitarians with no geopolitical or class loyalties.
posted by melissa may at 1:05 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just want to provide some context for those who are not familiar with what has been happening with bed bugs in NYC.

7 high-profile NYC bedbug scares

Bed Bugs hit NYC by Storm ~ Victoria's Secret ~ Abercrombie and Fitch ~ Hollister
posted by mlis at 1:07 PM on October 4, 2010

I was just going to say, I wonder if the commenters thinking "what's the big deal?" have actually lived in NYC for any length of time, especially over the past few years when the bed bug problem has been extremely severe.

Bed bugs are a massive problem for homeless shelters; for any places with particularly transient residents like dorms or hotels, but especially for homeless shelters because they often don't have the resources to take care of it. Add in the risks from using discarded furniture or clothing, and it's a big problem for homeless people. I completely understand why people would instinctively bristle at the mention that the guy was homeless- it seems like stigmatizing someone who is already unfairly stigmatized. But it's just incorrect to say that the rich are at just as much of a risk of carrying around bed bugs on their clothes as the homeless. To me, that actually minimizes what the homeless actually have to contend with.

The jacket landed on your lap, you threw it in the wash. Looking at it from a purely logical, cost-benefit approach, throwing your clothes in the wash, which you'd eventually do anyway is a very very small cost for the possible benefit of sparing yourself a gross, expensive, life-upturning infestation. I think you did the smart thing. You don't sound like some kind of paranoid germophobe.
posted by Ashley801 at 1:21 PM on October 4, 2010 [6 favorites]

Seconding Ashley801 - it's not about being classist - people who are sleeping in lots of places where lots of other transient people have slept, who have limited access to laundry facilities, and who may be carrying around bedding are more likely to have bedbugs on them. Doing laundry (or just putting already dry clothing in the dryer for 40 minutes--the important thing is to reach sustained high temperatures, which takes less time if your clothes are already dry and room temperature) is a small price to pay for prevention and peace of mind.
posted by needs more cowbell at 1:34 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just one quick link and a reference:

This recent article, from the NYT, is about the craziness surrounding bed bugs in NYC these days; it might give out of town people an idea of what's going on here. The article does say "[s]ome of the fear is rooted in fact: The bugs, while they are not known to transmit disease, can travel on clothing, jump into pocketbooks and lurk in the nooks of furniture."

There's also a 2006 article, Arthropod-Borne Diseases in Homeless, from the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences:

Homeless people are particularly exposed to ectoparasites. The living conditions and the crowded shelters provide ideal conditions for the spread of lice, fleas, ticks, and mites ... Bedbug infestations were reported at 20 (31%) of 65 homeless shelters.

(The study wasn't specific to NYC, so I don't know if that shelter infestation rate would even be in the ballpark for NYC.)
posted by Ashley801 at 2:04 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can you get bed bugs from homeless people? Sure. But you can also get them from the seats in the subway car, movie theaters, hotels, clothing stores, and pretty much everywhere else in NYC. It's an epidemic; bedbugs eat blood and nothing else (and can live for a year without feeding), so the presence of bedbugs does not imply that the person is dirty (and vice versa - the guy in the nice suit who brushed up against you might have an office infested with bedbugs while the homeless guy is clean).

If it makes you feel better to wash and dry your clothes on high heat, then go for it; it's not a huge burden. But, living in NYC you're pretty much at risk of getting bed bugs at all times, so it might not actually prevent anything. You're better off with periodic checks of your mattress and sheets for dark red spots (bed bug blood excrement), though they can, and often do, hide in places other than the mattress.
posted by melissasaurus at 2:10 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're going to be worried at all times that you might have come into contact with someone/something that is infested with bed bugs, you should probably move away from New York City. Stat. If you don't, you'll probably have a nervous breakdown.
posted by Sara C. at 5:53 PM on October 4, 2010

But in fairness, I think the others here are dead wrong that a luxury hotel or Park Avenue person is more likely to have bedbugs - bedbugs are prevalent in homeless shelters, and in the event of an infestation, rich people are likely to just throw everything out and buy everything new after spending a fortune on fumigation.

I'm not comparing a luxury hotel's chance of having bedbugs to a homeless person's chance of having bedbugs. I'm comparing the chance of getting bedbugs by sleeping in a luxury hotel overnight vs. the chance of getting bedbugs by momentarily brushing against a homeless person's jacket. I'm not making this up just to say rich people are more bedbug-ridden. It may be that homeless people are more bedbug-ridden than top hotels -- but they're both bedbug-ridden. Look at any online literature on bedbugs -- it will probably emphasize that you cannot avoid them by staying in a nice hotel.
posted by John Cohen at 6:09 PM on October 4, 2010

Let us keep in mind that bedbugs are not magical. Three things at least militate against you acquiring them in this fashion: they are nocturnal, they are not invisible, and they do not move especially fast.

I have only spotted one in the wild once myself: I had been reading at night in a mid-range hotel, turned out the lights and hit the sack. I could not sleep, so a half hour later I turned the lights back on to read some more; I found a tiny visitor making its way across the sheets. A bedbug is about the size of an apple seed and moves at maybe half the speed of an ant, if not slower.

Anyway, yes: you are freaking out for no reason. Is it impossible to acquire a bedbug this way? Not impossible, but close enough as makes no difference. You are much more likely to have one crawl into the lining of your jacket while sitting in a waiting room or in a taxi or somesuch.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:39 AM on October 5, 2010

« Older And the kid drank the glass full of putrid liquid!...   |   Large-sized benzocaine/lidocaine condoms? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.