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Don't Let The Bedbugs Bite

New research reveals that bedbugs may carry infections, and a local hospital has a new germicidal machine to combat harmful microbes.

In mid-May, a study from Canada alerted the medical community that bedbugs might carry pathogens.

While it’s an incredibly small study, the results could be far-reaching, said Philip D. Shenefelt, physician and associate professor at the University of South Florida’s Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery, who urged caution.

“It is interesting that an organism can survive within a bedbug,” he said. “But as long as the person before you didn’t have an infection, there’s little risk.”

Things get a little trickier in hospitals.

Locally, University Community Hospital, has added new technology to its infectious disease-fighting arsenal, according to Will Darnall, hospital spokesperson. It is a portable, high-tech device called a high-intensity germicidal electromagnetic energy unit. Its germ-fighting properties make it useful for sterilizing an area within minutes, Darnall said. The combination of electromagnetic energy and blue light attacks microbes carrying infections.

“We’re the first hospital in this region with this advanced device,” said Darnall, who added he thinks it has far-reaching implications for germicidal warfare in light of new studies on infectious disease.

Previously, it was widely believed that bedbugs did not spread infection. Yet two drug-resistant forms were found in the bloodstreams of five bedbugs found on patients. The data was published in “Emerging Infectious Diseases,” published by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

The first infection, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), was found on three bugs. MRSA is resistant to several types of antibiotics and can be persistent. MRSA can also be fatal.

Two bugs had vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium (VRE), which is also an antibiotic-resistant bacterium. It can cause infections, such as pneumonia and meningitis, and it can attack the heart valve.

These are potentially deadly infections.

The history
Cimicideae, or bedbugs, are parasitic insects that have been documented since 77 A.D. The version we see in this country has adapted to climate, medications and chemicals and evolved.

“They’re pretty hardy little bugs,” Shenefelt said.

They were largely eradicated in this country after World War II, but there’s been a precipitous rise in the past decade. That can be attributed to increased global travel, rising temperatures due to climate change and resistance to insecticides, according to Shenefelt.

DDT, a pesticide developed after World War II to treat crops, was effective against bedbugs. Yet it was banned in 1972 because of its harmful effect on the environment.

Drug resistance occurs when an infection evolves and reduces the effectiveness of substances that treat them. The sensitive organisms die, yet persistent germs flourish.

In the study, the bugs were crushed and analyzed in a lab. While the results reverse previous theories that bedbugs don’t carry infection, it’s an incredibly small study.

Shenefelt foresees follow-up focusing on research that helps develop pesticides to treat bedbugs. 

“Be alert, but there’s nothing to fear,” Shenefelt said.

Precaution may also be the best current defense in treating an infestation in your home.

Telltale signs
Bedbugs are mostly nocturnal and can be challenging to find. Aggressively check areas where they typically hide. That includes areas between the mattress and box spring, on the headboard of the bed and the baseboard of the wall

“The adults are the size of an apple seed and flat if hungry, but grape shaped and reddish if the bug has just consumed a meal,” Shenefelt said.

Bedbugs typically prefer feasting on human blood. There are telltale signs they’re around. They shed their skin, leaving it behind.  Though small, these are evidence of an infestation.

“They also leave streaks of bug poop, since they relieve themselves directly after a meal,”Shenefelt said.

Shenefelt had a few suggestions for travelers:

  • Check the mattress and box spring before moving luggage into a hotel room.
  • Keep luggage in the shower, if there are signs of bedbugs.
  • Wrap clothes in plastic bags for transport home.

Generally, bedbugs don’t travel more than eight feet from where they feed—usually around beds, according to Shenefelt.

While ordinary bedbugs do not spread infections, that’s not the case for the tropical bedbug, which he said may be more prevalent in Florida as we undergo climatic change. However, diligent mattress and box spring checks are the best ways to spot an invasion.

Treatment
Patients whose bacterial cultures show the presence of infection with MRSA or other bacteria may be given a prescription for oral antibiotics. The few infections that are resistant to treatment may require a course of intravenous antibiotics and perhaps hospitalization, Shenefelt said. 

Typically, bites are accompanied by reddish welts or an allergic reaction. Shenefelt urged patients not to scratch, which could break the skin and leave an entry for infection.

Since each bedbug lays hundreds of eggs, there are two ways to rid your home of the pesky insects. You can tent your house, which is costly and can take several days. Alternatively, raising the home’s temperature to 150 degrees through the use of blowers, takes several hours, and is less costly.

You should routinely:

  • launder bedding at high temperatures
  • vacuum regularly
  • caulk cracks in plaster walls and ceilings

Other resources:

Dermatology at USF Health

Bedbugs - Cimex lectularius (Cimicidae) (Harvard School of Public Health)

Bedbugs (University of Florida)

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