Unproven Bed Bugs--to treat or not to treat?
October 21, 2010 9:39 PM   Subscribe

Should one treat bedbugs if the only evidence is bites? My friends live in a beautiful clean home. She has been getting bites, mainly on her torso, for the last 5 days. They seem to happen at night while sleeping. He gets no bites and thinks her suspicion of bed bugs is crazy. They have not been traveling, have not had house guests. Exterminator could find no signs of bed bugs or other critters, except for the bites on her belly. no droppings, blood, nothing. Exterminator (nice guy) gave her the possible options( mattress encasement alone, mattress encasement with treatment, sniffer dog, and "wait and see", but he refused to make a recommendation saying the choice was hers...........She showed him her belly (yes, she was that desperate) and he agreed the bites were consistent with bed bug bites but that one can't really determine that for certain.

She wants my advice. She is freaked out (I don't blame her) and does not want to spend the money and go through the process if indeed there aren't bed bugs, especially with her husband thinking she is over reactive about this. The dog service costs $300 , encasements alone cost $240, encasements + treatment with warranty of 90 days costs $550. I tried to research this on the internet and her bites look like they definitely could be bed bugs. It is not the right season for bird mites. She is not interested in trying the dry ice trap, and the exterminator told her that the dry ice method of determining bed bug presence only works in some circumstances and that it is a matter of luck if the bed bugs end up in the trap. Should she pay the $550 for peace of mind rather than wait until the possible infestation is verified(but more established and therefore harder to treat)? Or should I tell her to listen to her husband's suggestion that she just take a valium and wait and see? The exterminator did tell her that if there are bugs that move into the bedroom couch, the couch will have to be disposed of (and she loves the couch), and that if there is an infestation of bed bugs, it is in the early stage when it is easiest to contain and least likely to spread to other areas, rooms, etc.. What would YOU advise?
posted by Lylo to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
As much as I would advise caution, I can understand the concern. However, the current fever over bed bugs (legitimate or otherwise) may be falsely leading to a lot of false positives.

Why couldn't they seek a second opinion? The exterminator (nice guy or otherwise) still benefits from the treatment options. Could they ask someone else?
posted by purephase at 9:46 PM on October 21, 2010

When I was getting bitten, I would have paid any price, borne any burden, for the sake of a bite-free night. (Seriously -- I utterly and unequivocally recall the intense paranoia that resulted.) I was able to achieve this, however, with some relatively cheap intervention -- an allergen sleeve for my mattress and box spring, bed lifts, and a whole lot of diatomaceous earth.

The husband sounds like he doesn't get it. It's often the case that one person in a space is tastier than another (a couple of relatives have been taking mosquito bullets for me for years).

Also, cleanliness is irrelevant. The relationship between bedbugs and humans revolves wholly around blood meals.
posted by dhartung at 9:48 PM on October 21, 2010

Is she absolutely, positively sure that the marks she has are 1) bites of some kind and 2) bedbug bites specifically? I would get an emergency appointment with a dermatologist, if possible. Granted, the exterminator probably has a lot of familiarity with bedbug bites but dermatology is a tricky thing.
posted by corey flood at 9:52 PM on October 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Maybe she can try the "Climb-up Insect Interceptor" traps that go underneath the legs of the bed instead. They can be left in place indefinitely, and unlike dry ice or other CO2-based traps, they would work fine even when she and her husband are sleeping in the room and being a source of CO2. (The inspector I spoke to said that traps that attract bedbugs using CO2 don't always work when there are people sleeping in the room because the bedbugs are more drawn to the people breathing out CO2 than to the traps.)

Also, there are people that just don't react to bedbug bites - 20% of the population, I've read. I know someone who had no idea he had bedbugs until someone else slept in his bed for a few night and got bitten up horribly. Your friend's husband could be one of those people.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:56 PM on October 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Nthing the idea that your friend might just be tastier than her husband for whatever's biting. I had a flea problem about a year ago, which we first noticed because my legs were absolutely covered in bites. My boyfriend, who was living with me, had no bites at all. The doctor told me that this is commonly the case - women are bit at a higher rate than men because our blood is more attractive to fleas.

And yes, go to a dermatologist! We ended up confirming what the problem was by going to one, who took one look and told me what had bitten me.

Good luck to your friend.
posted by pluot at 10:24 PM on October 21, 2010

"He gets no bites and thinks her suspicion of bed bugs is crazy."

FYI, not everyone is allergic to bed bug bites, so he could be getting bitten too and just not developing welts. The actual bite holes from bed bug bites are extremely tiny, it's the skin's allergic reaction that creates the characteristic marks.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:39 PM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why not get the dog in there? If he finds nothing, then it's off to the allergist. If something is found, then the freakout can begin in earnest. Either way, it would be good to know.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:00 AM on October 22, 2010

Would it help her feel better if they moved or encased the couch? It seems like additional stress that could be avoided relatively easily.
posted by copperbleu at 1:14 AM on October 22, 2010

I wouldn't spend money for peace of mind yet, but would wait to see what happens over another week. If it is bedbugs, the problem won't get too much more out of control in that time. Maybe see if more similar marks come up and on different parts of her body, or observe the sheets for more signs.

The thing to remember about bedbug bites is that even bites presenting after a confirmed infestation don't always look or act like the classic bite pictures you see online. They can take days to appear, can appear at night instead of after waking, can be single bites instead of the clusters, can look like anything from welts to small pimples...all happened to me. It's hard enough after treatment of a confirmed infestation to tell if you are having a delayed reaction or if there really are still bugs or if your skin is reacting to something else entirely. This is why it's a good idea to be more vigilant, look for the signs, and look for live bugs. Once they find a live bug, there will be no doubt.
posted by houndsoflove at 4:42 AM on October 22, 2010

I would double check that they're not chiggers - I had chiggers and the bites can look pretty dramatic, yet the person in bed next to you never gets bitten since they're living on your body.
posted by beyond_pink at 5:22 AM on October 22, 2010

I was also going to suggest fleas. We had a flea problem in our house when I was growing up, and the males never got bitten. Bizarre.
posted by gjc at 7:03 AM on October 22, 2010

My wife and I were in a similar situation, with my wife getting the bites and me getting none.

We solved the problem with an allergen cover for our mattress and aggressively washing and drying our sheets every couple of days for a little while. If money is an issue, picking up a couple of mattress covers might be a good first step and a lot cheaper than the professional option.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 7:17 AM on October 22, 2010

Best answer: Would your friend be able to sleep somewhere else for a couple of nights (with you, hotel, etc.)? If she is not there the bugs would presumably start biting her husband. I'd bet he'd be a lot less skeptical then.

(There is also the possibility that it's not bed bugs and that the symptoms would continue in some other setting. Thus, I imagine, prompting a visit to a doctor.)
posted by oddman at 8:25 AM on October 22, 2010

An exterminator once told me that women get bitten by bedbugs at an exponentially higher rate than men, and that is the reason many (hetero) couples wait longer than necessary to treat (or even seriously investigate) the situation-- the male partner refuses to believe there is a problem, and the woman second-guesses the problem. So that's one data point.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 8:37 AM on October 22, 2010

I agree - are fleas a possibility? When my cat was being treated for fleas, I ended up with several bites on my torso one morning. I never found any fleas in the bed (and certainly the cat was not allowed in the bedroom), so I must have carried one or two on my body inside my pyjamas into the bed with me. Your friend could possibly have picked up some fleas by visiting someone else's house and they got deposited somewhere that she is sitting. It's said that fleas prefer pets, but they will happily bite people as a close second.
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:07 AM on October 22, 2010

Best answer: IANAPCP.

Harvard's section on bed bugs was moved here. They recommend that you confirm the presence of bed bugs by seeing/catching one, preferably a crawling one, and confirming its identity before treating. Many public health departments offer a verification service. I read somewhere that under the assumption she had a bed bug infestation, a woman treated her residence and threw out many of her belongings, only to find out that the actual bug she sent in for analysis was a tiny collection of fabric particles. It's important to verify an infestation because over-treatment results in bed bugs building up resistance to pesticides. It's also key to verify an infestation because if you treat assuming it's bed bugs, and in fact it's not, you wait even longer to figure out the real cause (and waste money). For now, I'd suggest doing as the above site recommends, and clean, declutter, and monitor via the methods discussed. Also, using mattress and box spring encasements is an easy and practical first step to take and will guard against any possible future infestations even if she does not have one now. I'd wait to treat.
posted by analog at 9:40 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Take a valium, seriously? What does he think is happening? I'm sorry to get so worked up about this, but seriously, I would be furious if someone dismissed me like that. Your friend is being bitten by something in her sleep. You can tell! Because she has insect bites! Argh.

ANYWAY. I have heard it suggested that in some cases if you have trouble catching the little bloodsuckers, it can be helpful to sleep with a flashlight. Yes, it will mean a sleepless night spent tossing and turning and whipping on the flashlight to pan under the covers. But if she can catch the monsters in the act, it will be all worthwhile. (And it's free!)

You don't mention what part of the world she lives in, or what kind of housing structure. Bedbugs and fleas can easily travel between walls, if she's in an apartment, condo, townhouse, or other shared-wall home. It could also be mosquitoes, if she lives in a skeeter-prone area.

I would probably start with a flea bomb, and go from there. Flea bombs are cheap ($10), effective against fleas, and safe if used as directed. I know a lot of people are anti-flea-bomb, and I respect that. But they work really, really well.
posted by ErikaB at 9:53 AM on October 22, 2010

Nthing the fact that just because her husband is not being bitten, does not mean that the bugs are imaginary. We had bird mites, and my kids got bitten the worst, then me, then my husband not at all.

However I have no idea if she is suffering from bedbugs, but I agree with the suggestion upthread to sleep somewhere else for a few nights and see if there is a difference.
posted by Joh at 10:20 AM on October 22, 2010

I agree with others that seeing a dermatologist, or even just asking her primary care doctor, should probably be the first step.

I had a run-in with bed bugs a few months ago (while traveling, not in my home). It was ultimately the quantity of bites that clued me in. It wasn't just a bite or two - it was like 20 bites on each arm and leg (when I had seen nary an ant or mosquito during the whole trip). I looked like I had chicken pox or had lain down on an ant hill. Everyone reacts differently, but if she has only a few bites on one part of the body and the number has stabilized, it probably isn't bed bugs.

All of that said, I once lived in an apartment with a spider problem. They loved to bite my abdomen and left tiny yet intensely itchy bites - usually only one or two at a time, since spiders tend to travel solo and they're not feeding on you or anything like that.
posted by Sara C. at 10:21 AM on October 22, 2010

I say have the exterminator do his thing. If nothing else, doing a thorough search in the mattress/cushions, walls, etc. and using the sniffer dog will likely give a definite determination.

Personally, I'd go bananas at the first bite, but I have a particular hatred for insects in general.
posted by Citrus at 10:48 AM on October 22, 2010

I agree with needs more cowbell: she should get the climb-up interceptors. See here.

You can also make your own (I don't have a link, but you can google it.)

Best of luck to her--ugh!
posted by torticat at 11:51 AM on October 22, 2010

I would get the dog sniffer test. The bugs might not be in the bed, right? Treating the the bedroom before you know where they are isn't smart.

And "take a valium?" What a jerky thing to say to your partner.
posted by chairface at 3:26 PM on October 22, 2010

I don't know whether there's any real scientific evidence for that, but I've read that rat mites typically bite women (especially lactating women), and avoid men. This may or may not be true for bedbugs. Anyway, the fact that her husband doesn't get bitten should be regarded as irrelevant.
posted by The Toad at 8:25 PM on October 22, 2010

I know I'm coming in late ... but I just want to nth the recommendation to see a doctor or dermatologist. About a month back I thought we had bed bugs due to bed-bug type bites on my back - it turned out I had shingles. Luckily, we caught it before it became too painful.
posted by msmanners at 12:07 AM on October 24, 2010

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