Fear of bed bugs: hysteria and reality

by nobugsonme on August 31, 2010 · 23 comments

in bed bug research, bed bugs, humor

Let’s consider the fear of bed bugs.

Here is the transcript of a conversation between host Ira Flatow, Psychologist Dr. Kevin Ochsner (of Columbia University), and producer Flora Lichtman about psychological reactions to bed bugs, which aired in the Science Friday segment on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week.

I first want to direct you to Flora’s Video of the Week (mentioned in the segment): “Psychological Reappraisal of Bedbugs.”  The idea behind “reappraisal,” to be discussed more in a moment, is that our fears of bed bugs are irrational, and that we need to think differently about them.  (I know, but please bear with me.)

The video is embedded below, or viewable here.

You can read or listen to the discussion itself on NPR’s site.

Science Friday Host Ira Flatow says of the video:

“Maybe you won’t look or feel about bedbugs the same way after you see this video.”

Hmmm. I think it would be much more fun if I did not know what bed bugs were really like.

While certainly as far-fetched, at least this Isabella Rossellini fiasco (which The Daily Show had some fun with recently) acknowledges the sheer unpleasantness of having bed bugs living in your home and feeding on you while you sleep.

I was even less taken with Science Friday’s discussion around bedbug “hysteria.”

Dr. Kevin Ochsner thinks that bed bugs are simply “a manageable pest” which is “annoying, but certainly not something worth being really afraid of.”

Ochsner seems to think that people have a fear of bed bugs which is out of proportion to the threat.  We may think they’re like “land piranhas,” or in our minds, they’re enormous like Rossellini’s bed bugs.

However, those aren’t the fears of people who know about bed bugs.  Or of people who’ve experienced them.

As for their manageability, while you can certainly get rid of bed bugs, many people are forced to live with them for longer than they should because they are not getting proper treatment, and can’t afford to move.

Still others sink serious amounts of money, time and energy into fighting them. And for many, it’s a very real source of anxiety, stress, and physical discomfort.

The World Health Orgaization, the Centers for Disease Control, and others have documented the fact that bed bugs cause real health problems.

And they don’t suggest sufferers simply learn to “reappraise” bed bugs (i.e. think about them in a new way), as Ochsner suggests we should.

I agree that the recent media frenzy has too often had a hysterical tone.

However, while the general public may be “hysterical” about the idea of bed bugs, the reality of bed bugs is a serious problem for far too many people. Had Ochsner, Lichtman, and Flatow spoken with entomologists, or with people who have actually had bed bugs, they might be reappraising their own ideas about bed bugs.

The seriousness of the bed bug epidemic, and the difficulty in eradicating a bed bug infestation is explored more intelligently in the Science section of Monday’s New York Times, in this article focusing on bed bug research.

This article offers a kind of response to the Science Friday crew. Of the “manageability” of this pest, Donald G. McNeil, Jr. writes,

Whatever the source [of the current epidemic], the future is grim, experts agreed.

Many pesticides don’t work, and some that do are banned — though whether people should fear the bug or the bug-killer more is open to debate.

“I’d like to take some of these groups and lock them in an apartment building full of bugs and see what they say then,” [Dr. Michael Potter] said of environmentalists.

Treatment, including dismantling furniture and ripping up rugs, is expensive. Rather than actively hunting for bugs, hotels and landlords often deny having them.

Details in the article emphasize how cautious researchers are to avoid bringing bed bugs home, and how some, including Dr. Stephen Kells (of the University of Minnesota) and Dr. Coby Schal (of North Carolina State University), have developed artificial means of feeding their own bed bug colonies, due to perceived risks of letting the bugs bite them regularly.

Although it takes us a bit off-topic, another not-to-be-missed point in the NY Times story is the section addressing the theory that bed bugs came from “overseas”:

Experts say they’ve heard blame pinned on many foreign ethnic groups and on historic events from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Persian Gulf war to the spread of mosquito nets in Africa. Every theory has holes, and many are simply racist.

(For example, Dr. Potter said, he has heard Mexicans blamed, but Mexican pest control companies he contacted said they rarely see the bugs except in the homes of people returning from the United States, often with scavenged furniture.)

The story that bed bugs came to the US from other countries with immigrants and travelers doesn’t make a lot of sense once you talk to people from the countries mentioned, and find out bed bugs are also “reappearing” there too, after being largely unheard of.

Perhaps Dr. Schal’s research in mapping global variations in bed bug genes will soon shine some light.

I know you’ll want to read the rest of the New York Times story here.

1 Doug Summers MS August 31, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Bed bugs were introduced to North America by immigrants…. during the 1500s

Hernando DeSoto’s expedition to Florida in 1539 was likely the first introduction of bed bugs to North America

There are references to bed bugs in the ship’s log books.

2 RD August 31, 2010 at 4:28 pm

I love, love, love Michael Potter and wish they’d consult him for every bedbug article/trend piece (and there are seem to be more and more out there.) Had bedbugs briefly, am terrified of getting them again. I don’t live in NY anymore (where I had them) but I’m wondering if people in NY are actually talking about this huge problem, or if it’s just contained to articles on the web and in newspapers. The stigma still seems pretty huge.

3 RD August 31, 2010 at 4:30 pm

Oh, and the other person who is just insanely awesome is Gale Brewer — it’s amazing how long Bloomberg has ignored this problem for, and she has been there from the start warning people about what a problem this is. Wish more pols would do that.

4 nobugsonme August 31, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Hi RD,

We’re huge fans of Michael Potter.

And we appreciate very much the work Gale Brewer has done, and continues to do, to bring the bed bug problem more attention from City Hall and in the news media.

In response to your question, while there is a stigma to bed bugs, my sense is that people are talking about them, and this buzz has been growing for some time.

While many people still seem reluctant to tell their own stories, I think this is changing. People often report to me that their friends and colleagues have brought up bed bugs around the water cooler or at a dinner party. The media can be a bit of a circus, but I do think it’s helping bring the subject out into the open more.

5 nobugsonme August 31, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Hi Doug, thanks for that!

The question we seem to be talking about is where they “came from” when they “reappeared.”

I use the scare quotes because there’s evidence there have always been bed bugs here and abroad, albeit in many cases in smaller numbers.

However, the theory that they “came back” to North America starting in the late 1990s with travelers and immigrants is being presented by some as fact. And I would like to see some evidence for that, since we hear that bed bugs seemed to have “come back” in other countries also.

It seems like everyone wants to believe bed bugs came from somewhere else.

I am not saying bed bugs don’t travel; clearly they do. I just don’t think we have evidence to show which direction they were going in when they started appearing in large numbers once again.

6 KB August 31, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Thank you so much for this website! I haven’t had bedbugs yet (fingers crossed) but my sister had a difficult experience with them, and I’m now living in a bedbug “hotspot,” so I think my vigilance has been starting to inch toward hypervigilance/paranoia. For me, this website has been such a help in sorting out fact from fiction. On the one hand, it seems there is a lot of discounting of very real concerns about these horrible bugs. On the other, there has been a lot of hysteria.

One of the “scare stories” that was freaking me out was about the possibility of picking up bedbugs in public places like benches, the subway, etc. It turns out that might be a little overblown. Not that bed bugs are non-existent in public spaces, but that it is unlikely to pick them up if you just want to sit in the park. So I thought I would share this in case it helps alleviates anybody else’s fears:
“Kendrick says the bugs like warm, dark places where they can feast on people. So they’re not likely to be riding subways or sitting on park benches unless they’re stuck on a bag or a shoe. That’s how they wind up in retail stores and movie theaters.”

7 LB August 31, 2010 at 10:28 pm

This doesn’t have much to do with the article to my knowledge, but I have a question. I’ve had a series of bites on my hands / forearm for about 3 days or so now. The main series on my forearm are about 9 bites in a bit of a jumbled line. I have an additional 2 at the base of the middle finger of my right hand, and another to in between the pinky and ring finger of my left hand. I’ve also discovered about 2 or three other bites on my body that I thought to be mosquito bites, but now, I’m not too sure. I did scratch one of them (the ones on my body), and it kind of leveled out and there is a small red blotch around it (possibly inflammation of the dermis? Not sure. haha).

I suspected bed bugs, so I searched my bed, removing all the sheets, looking through them, pillow cases, mattress pad, etc. I did not find anything out of the ordinary.

So, my question is, do you think I have bed bugs? And if in your opinion I don’t, do you think anything else would have caused this? I must add I’ve been working at cross country practices outside and have been exposed to a myriad of insects. Also, while working on the course with a friend, a tree we were removing from the brush on the side of the course ‘fell on me’, and we both experienced some kind of strange rash/bite that went away and came back over the span of a few hours.

Thank you for your insight,

8 CarpathianPeasant August 31, 2010 at 10:38 pm

It was highly interesting that the AIDS virus died.

9 Doug Summers MS August 31, 2010 at 11:46 pm



Here are a couple of links to articles that may be helpful.

Groups of three bites are a myth… Statistically groups of two will be more common.

There are some good guides on the Resource page that provide guidance for performing a basic inspection… Be sure to check inside of your box springs and any other harborage areas that are close to your bed, couch or recliner.

You can try an inexpensive monitoring system like BB Alert or Climb Up Interceptors on your bed or furniture to see if you can capture a bed bug.

Some mites and biting pests are found in trees… Chiggers, for example.

Look over the FAQs for more information…. We really can’t give you a good answer based on a written description or the appearance of eruptions on your skin.

10 Doug Summers MS September 1, 2010 at 12:02 am

Hernando DeSoto came ashore in Safety Harbor, Florida… Only a few blocks from our training facility.

I think Dini Miller said it best… The bigger mystery is why bed bugs disappeared from the US for 50 years.

I think that DNA testing might provide some answers.

I don’t think the chicken farm hypothesis can explain the phenomenon that we are experiencing.

11 nobugsonme September 1, 2010 at 2:31 am

You may be interested to find, as I was, that the Science article in the New York Times made the paper’s Learning Network page.

Katherine Schulten cleverly turned the story’s main points into a bed bug fill-in-the-blanks exercise for students.

Perhaps there will be some budding entomologists among them! We need all the help we can get.

Now, let’s hope they’re filling in the blanks in a bed-bug-free classroom…

12 Ken September 1, 2010 at 8:21 am

As to whether people talk about them in conversation: lots. Many now have the dots to show, and as Doug said, three are a myth – well, sometimes there are three – but he is right, two are the most common, along with singles. Reason being I guess is we wake up or scratch in our sleep before they get to three…
Gale Brewer talked to the journalist, Andrea Hayley who did the article in the Epoch Times (25 Aug, pp. 1/8), and Christine Quinn’s name came up…I have not been successful with either phone calls or emails in getting to her. Methinks she talks too much and does too little? I will post about her reaction of lack thereof on http://www.bugoutter.blogspot.com
And of course about what happens at the Vigilant – which is mainly lack thereof…

13 OnAlertinToronto September 1, 2010 at 10:41 pm

I wasn’t sure where to post this, but if you want to talk about hysteria look no further than the past 24 hours in Toronto, after it was Tweeted that a Toronto Film Festival venue had bed bugs. The news went GLOBAL within hours. Even CNN covered it. Just Google “bed bug Toronto” news stories and look at the coverage. I was actually surprised not to find mention of it on Bedbugger.com!

I, for one, was actually grateful that the panic spread — so many people are so blasé about bed bugs and foolishly believe they’re not a real problem. They really need to wake up. For once, the media POUNCED on the story (likely because of all the high-profile celebs en route to the festival) but, unfortunately, were also quick to call it a “false alarm” the second the theatre in question declared itself bed bug-free. And, as a result, all the naysayers promptly chimed in with, “Aha! See? It was a lie! Bed bugs are no big deal and people freaked out for nothing.”

I’d rather have people freak out and become vigilant than to be lulled into a false sense of “it can’t happen to me.” If it takes a little hysteria to get there, well, that’s fine by me.

14 nobugsonme September 2, 2010 at 4:02 am

Hi OnAlert,

Rather than a false alarm — and let’s assume for a moment that the inspection was correct and there were no bed bugs in the cinema –I would consider this situation a wake-up call: if the cinema in question does not have a bed bug prevention and detection program in place, they need to implement one (as does everyone else).

And you’re right — there’s so much bed bug press now that I can hardly keep up with posting about the interesting stories.

However, I do read everything I come across and did see the saga you mentioned. It has now made its way into the most recent post here.

15 OnAlertinToronto September 2, 2010 at 8:16 am

Keep up the excellent work! This site is an invaluable resource for so many people. 🙂

16 Alva French September 2, 2010 at 11:08 am

Don’t you think the NYC government and US federal agencies could be doing more to set the record straight on what bedbugs can actually do? It seems like a solid media campaign by the CDC, EPA and/or NYC Health Department could go a long way to informing the public and debunking myths about bedbugs.

If you agree, let me know:

Keep up the good work.

17 HaSoferet September 3, 2010 at 7:17 am

I realize that at this point in history the bugs are merely spread from one place to another by various means. My question is where was infestation zero?

18 nobugsonme September 3, 2010 at 12:52 pm

As I understand it, HaSoferet, it was when people were living in caves.

19 CiLecto September 13, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Propose having a person who “lives with” BB spend a weekend at Dr. Ochsner’s home, with an overnight bag and some accessories. Explain what Dr. Ochsner might need to do in six months. Ask Dr. Ochsner if the visitor is still welcome. Ask Dr. Ochsner to re-evaluate the fear of BB by imagining what it must be like to be that potential weekend visitor.

20 nobugsonme September 13, 2010 at 11:20 pm

Excellent suggestions, Cilecto! I am sure we could get a willing volunteer from among the forum users.

21 SCAED2DEATH September 15, 2010 at 3:20 pm

I work @ a assisted livig facility in Indianapolis, IN. Indiana was named the 12th state with the worst festation by Terminix. My job does infact have about 3 residents w/bedbugs. Terminix has been out about every other day treating the apartments and facility. I keep my work uniform at work and come to work with clothes from home. I dry my uniform for 20minutes then when i change into my uniform i put the clothes from home in the dryer for 20mins then retun them to my vehicle. do you think that is an effective way to stop them from hitching a ride home w/me?

Also they call them bedbugs because they live in the bed? I think they should just call them hitch hikers because clearly they live every where. I now have matress covers from terminix on every bed in my house. Also had terminix come out n evaluate for bedbugs. they found nothing.

Two more questions and I’m done.

Do you think the matress covers are effective for keeping the bedbugs out your bed?
Do you think the Terminix people will bring a bug to a house intentionally that does not have bedbugs for financial gain?

22 nobugsonme September 15, 2010 at 4:03 pm


Please copy and repost your message in our active user forums: http://bedbugger.com/forum

You will get a lot of helpful feedback there from myself and others.

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