Today I got this email from a Reader:
Why is it that some people aren’t being bitten and some are? Example: My boyfriend and I share an apartment. I am being bitten all night long. He, on the other hand, does not seem to be bothered at all by these critters. Please, I need an answer.
The short answer is that some people are not allergic to bed bug bites so they don’t notice they’re being bitten. It’s also possible that others may not be bitten at all. I saw one report that suggested as many as 70% of people live with bed bugs and either aren’t bitten or are bitten and don’t notice.
Update (6/2010): this post was originally written in 2007, and this statistic suggesting most people don’t react to bed bug bites comes from Jerome Goddard in a 2006 podcast linked from here; however, please note: subsequent research suggesting 70% of people do react to bed bugs was carried out by Dr. Michael Potter at the University of Kentucky and publicized in early 2010, and this research is described here.
Nobody has a definitive answer as to why, and frankly, I guess researchers are a bit too busy trying to figure out how to kill bed bugs (and also, find out how many bed bugs are resistant to which insecticides and how to find new ways to kill them) to spend much time on questions like this. I am sure that if bed bugs stick around a while, we’ll learn a lot more about them.
Given that we don’t know for certain, a few sources (of the news article or fact-sheet variety) have suggested that women may be more likely than men to either be bitten or feel the bites (again, we don’t know if this is true, but for what little its worth, it appears that way to me), and that this may be because women’s body temperatures differ from men’s (very slightly). (Are they higher? Lower? Does it matter? If anyone has a source on this, help me out. I’m ready to study as a Yogi to try and adjust my temperature to something less tasty!) It’s among the vast wealth of stuff I gleaned from goodness-knows-where when I first started reading about bed bugs. I rushed onwards to find the “how to stop them” information, but now wish I’d taken down some names. I will update this FAQ when someone tips me off or when I find them again.
Even if many or even most people with bed bugs aren’t itchy or aren’t bitten, most of our readers (though not all) are among the itchy. Why? Well, itchy people, and those who are really worried about their itchy partners, are most likely to come on the site and try and find a solution. Bed bugs would make one heck of a torture device.
Reader, the fact that every able adult isn’t affected by having bed bugs in the home is really one of the worst things about bed bugs. I am going out on a limb saying this, since many readers no doubt have bed bugs but are among the non-itchy and/or non-bitten sector of the bedbugger community (here’s a a shout out to Bugzinthehood!) Let me clarify: I don’t mean I want everyone to suffer!
However, I do wish bed bugs were noticed, somehow, by everyone who had them, because then we would not have people developing serious infestations, which they do not notice (and so can’t treat) until bed bugs are running up the walls in broad daylight. With out the early warning of itching, many people don’t get treatment until an infestation has gotten very, very bad. Some of the non-afflicted don’t even get treated then. If they never wake up and see themselves bitten, a small minority of people just won’t care.
If everyone got a clear and non-ignorable “sign,” it would reduce another problem, which this reader has touched on (and my heart goes out to her): those of us who are “the one who itches” in a relationship or communal-living situation don’t just suffer the enormous discomfort (and in rare cases even life-threatening allergic reactions) of bed bug bites. We often also have to deal with a partner or housemate who doesn’t get it–especially in cases where the bed bugs are elusive and never present themselves for clear-tape-sampling and close-up photos.
The effects of those we live with “not getting it” range from a reluctance on their part to getting treatment or to cooperating with treatment protocols, to the non-afflicted partner doubting the other’s experiences. People have been called crazy by loved ones, many times. Many arguments have been fought, and no doubt, some relationships have crumbled under the weight of what is a very stressful situation (whether you’re the one itching, or not).
There’s nothing worse than having those closest to you (either physically or emotionally) not getting the fact that an invisible creature they haven’t seen, that has no effect on them, is physically making you miserable. And when the only solution includes expensive treatments, inconvenient laundering and bagging, and sometimes even parting with stuff temporarily or for a long time, these significant others are likely to be even more hostile to the idea of solving your problem. Hostile in a way they’d never be if you had a verifiable illness or a clearly visible pest.
These skeptical partners, relatives and housemates need to get that bed bugs don’t affect everyone, and are not always easy to spot, but that they can seriously damage one’s physical and emotional health, they need to be eradicated and that extreme measures are generally necessary.
In addition to giving a shout out to the loving partners and solid friends who do support the itchier folks, despite the stretch of the imagination doing so can require, it would also be remiss of me not to express some sympathy for the non-afflicted partners and friends who don’t get it, since in most cases, they’re good, caring people, and it’s certainly not easy to live with someone suffering from bed bugs. It would also be irresponsible for me not to admit that sometimes people do have other causes besides bed bugs for their itching. Sometimes, it really is in their head, or in their laundry detergent, or in the hot tub that gave them folliculitis, among other possible causes. But it also is really common for one person in a place not to be affected by bed bugs, while those sleeping in the same bed or home, or working in the same office or school, are.
We need to get that information circulated more widely: people don’t always know they have bed bugs. This doesn’t just pertain to the non-itchy spouse or roommate. People in multi-unit dwellings –especially those living alone– need to learn to look for other signs of bed bugs (like the black specks and the cast-off shells), landlords need to have adjacent units (top, bottom, sides) of infested units treated as well as actively investigating whether other tenants may be infested but not noticing it. Because people who aren’t allergic to bed bugs and don’t live with anyone who is, are the ones whose infestations are likeliest to grow the largest (and spread most widely) before being treated.