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Why Are We So Freaked Out About Bed Bugs?

bed bug

Sleep tight!

Up until about six months ago, I only knew of bed bugs from the familiar saying about sleeping tight and not letting them bite.  But recently bed bugs have made a comeback in a big way.  According to the experts, bed bug populations have increased 500 percent in the past few years.

Here in the New York City area, bed bugs are infesting schools, retail stores and hotels.  It has become such a concern that there’s even a Bed Bug Alert iPhone app that tracks outbreaks in 10 major U.S. cities.

And like so many other things that start on the East Coast, bed bugs are heading west.

As far as pests go, bed bugs are fairly benign.   They aren’t known to transmit disease to humans and, for most people, a bed bug bite causes only minor discomfort.  So, why are we so freaked out about them?

Perhaps it is their predatory nature.  While mosquitoes or fleas will flit about waiting to be captured or killed, bed bugs are sneaky.  These tiny, wingless creatures hide in cracks and crevices, lurking in your walls, behind your baseboards and anywhere else they can squeeze their flat little bodies.  Once hidden, they wait for an unsuspecting human like yourself to come near enough to bite.

Or maybe we are so wigged out by bed bugs because they have a reputation for being impossible to get rid of.  While that’s not strictly true, getting rid of them is no easy feat.  While the Internet is full of do-it-yourself suggestions for banishing these creepy crawlies, experts agree that the best course of action is to whip out your wallet and call in a professional.  And even then, it may take several treatments before the bed bugs are gone.  Because unlike lice, which can survive only a day or two without feeding, bed bugs can hide out for many months before emerging to suck your blood.

Joel Stein’s column at Time,  in which he describes his wife’s obsession with bed bugs, sounds all too familiar to me.  She lives in fear of a bed bug infestation and devotes lots of time and effort to ensuring that she doesn’t have them and won’t get them.  She may sound irrational and over-the-top, but she is certainly not alone in her hysteria.

Although I don’t know a single person who has ever actually laid eyes on a bed bug, we know they are out there and their existence is a constant topic of conversation among my friends and acquaintances.  In fact, one woman I know says she’s already given lots of thought to what she would do should she discover them in her home:  Strip naked, walk out the door and toss a match behind her as she goes.

How about you?  Are bed bugs bugging you?

Image: Piotr Naskrecki/CDC

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