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Fearing the small things

Posted: Thursday, Jan 3rd, 2013

Put me nose to nose with a great white shark, and I’m sure that I’d react as anyone else with a healthy respect for life would.

But as I write from the safety of the landlocked San Luis Valley, I can’t say that particular scenario haunts my dreams.

I’ve always been far more terrified of the little things, from the tick lying in wait on the grassy mountainside to the single yellowjacket buzzing angrily around the Labor Day campground, or the microscopic germ that passes invisibly from one person to another.

Today, I can add one more species to the list of creepy crawlies: Bed bugs.

Like others my age, I grew up hearing the nightly refrain: “don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

At the time, it seemed like an archaic way of saying goodnight. I’d never been bitten by one, so I just assumed that bed bugs went the way of smallpox and Stalin.

Fast-forward to November 2012, when I spent a few nights at a motel room in an undisclosed location.

One morning, I woke up to find a few splotches of blood on my bed. I didn’t think much of it until similar spots appeared the next day, but I soon forgot about the jarring sight after I failed to spot any signs of a bite.

Several days passed, and then I began to scratch. And scratch. And scratch.

In between the itching fits that followed, I learned almost everything I never wanted to know about one of humankind’s oldest nemeses.

It turns out that my boyhood recollections were correct: Infestations were rare in the U.S. after World War II.

But Mr. and Mrs. Cimex lectularius never disappeared from parts of Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa.

It would be interesting to know what — if any — role the Cold War played in keeping those populations at bay. But most studies I’ve read have tied their reappearance in North America to the late-1990s rise in global travel and immigration.

Today, nearly one out of four Americans can tell you their own bed bug horror story, or share one they’ve heard from a friend or family member.

There’s no single answer as to why the problem is getting worse.

However, experts believe that American society as a whole has grown more lax about taking steps to control infestations.

At the same time, the insects may be building up resistance to pesticides that once proved to be so effective.

Pest management professionals now deem bed bugs to be the toughest challenge out there, according to a 2011 study by the industry’s mouthpiece.

Recent studies suggest that new generations of bed bugs produce enzymes that help them break down certain toxins, and then secrete them. Researchers elsewhere have found that today’s generations are growing thicker shells, while their nerve cells are evolving to protect them from exposure to pesticides.

Some people swear by diatomaceous earth as a non-toxic alternative to insecticides, but I’m not recommending either approach, since I’m not an expert on the subject.

Here are a few things that I can tell you about bed bugs: They’re tiny, but contrary to popular belief, they’re not invisible to the human eye.

An average specimen is usually about the size and color of a flat apple seed, or Abraham Lincoln’s head on a penny. I say “usually,” because after they’ve indulged in their bloodsucking, they turn dark red, and swell up to three times their normal size.

Zoom in on one, and you’d also see an imposing “beak” that pierces and saws into its victim’s skin. A separate tube injects saliva into the victim, which keeps the blood from coagulating, as another tube sucks the blood from its host.

Ingredients in the saliva also act as a defense mechanism that prevents the sleeping host from waking up and squashing the parasite to death. Those proteins may cause severe allergic reactions in some people, myself included.

Others, however, may never know they’ve been bitten. About one-third of all humans appear to be immune to the proteins, and surprisingly, studies suggest that elderly people may be less susceptible than the population as a whole.

Unlike ticks, bed bugs do not transmit diseases, but the itchy marks they leave behind can fuel hypochondria and insomnia.

Picture yourself as a Woody Allen character thrust unexpectedly into the lead role in a psychological horror movie, and you have a rough idea of how you’ll feel.

In my case, the telltale angry red welts did not appear for days — or even weeks — after I was exposed.

Although I took precautions beforehand, I began to obsess over the deeply unsettling thought that I may have transported the little nasties home with me.

I haven’t found any signs of them yet, but that hasn’t quelled my neurotic behavior.

I can report that bed bug bites are not painful. Yet they are extremely irritating, and they can become infected if you scratch them.

I’ve experimented with natural itch-relief remedies, but like others I’ve tried in the past, they’ve proven to be equally ineffective.

Cortisone is one conventional option, but one look at the list of possible side effects leaves me convinced that you should do everything you can to avoid bed bugs in the first place.

While they are incredibly resilient, they’re not indestructible.

If you remember just one thing I’ve said here, remember this: Bed bugs don’t like extremes in temperatures. They thrive at room temperature, and they can’t survive for long in hot or cold conditions.

If you believe you’ve been in contact with bed bugs, you should leave any and all items outside for a week or so. You should also put any potentially contaminated clothes or bedding in a drier and adjust the cycle to the highest possible setting.

In the event that you’re traveling and end up staying in a motel room, it’s important to inspect the bedding ahead of time for any signs of an infestation.

Bedbugs like to hide out in cracks or crevices, including the edges of mattresses or box springs, where they’ll go to digest their “blood meals;” they may also turn up behind wallpaper, electrical outlets or any other openings they can find.

The blotches are hard to miss. Once you’ve spotted them, they’re even harder to erase from your internal memory drive — like some horror movie you wished you’d never seen.

To learn more about possible infestations before you hit the road, go to: bedbugregistry.com.

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