Ask An Expert: How Do Bedbugs Affect Your Health?


It’s no secret we’re in the midst of a bedbug epidemic. The pesky little bloodsuckers have been all over the news lately. In fact, the first-ever conference on bedbugs was just held in a Chicago suburb. But one thing you don’t hear a lot of in the news is the health angle of a bedbug infestation. To get to the bottom of this, we spoke to Dr. Adarsh Mudgil – one of ZocDoc’s New York dermatologists.

Dr. Mudgil, you practice here in New York. Have you seen a growing number of bedbug bites recently? Not really. There’s been a pretty significant bedbug issue in New York ever since I was a resident. I did my residency up at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, so this is a problem I’ve been seeing all along.

People are more aware of the bedbug issue, though. I’ve had a couple patients who first saw other doctors, and were being treated for scabies when they actually had bedbugs.

What is scabies? Scabies is a parasitic mite that lives in your skin. You can get it from contact with someone who has it, or from a hospital setting, from hotel sheets… It causes an extremely itchy rash. That’s what bedbug bites look like, so the two are easily confused.

So is there any definitive way to identify a bedbug bite? Not really. A bite is a bite. The only surefire way to determine that you have bedbugs is to identify the bug.

Are bedbug bites dangerous? No. They’re more of a nuisance than anything else. There’s a psychological issue, though. It can drive people a little mad. You know, they’re not sleeping because they’re up at night scratching, and many people find it very upsetting, just the thought that you’re sharing your bed with these things that are biting you…

I’ve treated some people who got their apartments fumigated and got rid of the pests, but still – even today – if they get so much as a mosquito bite, they get very upset. They worry that they’ve been re-infested.

Is it true that some people react more to bedbugs than others? Yes. You see, the reason you don’t feel it when a bedbug is biting you is that they inject you with an anesthetic-like substance. They also inject you with histamines and vasoactive proteins. They use all these compounds that help them get at your blood, which is what they feed on. When you break out in a rash after getting bitten by bedbugs, it’s because you’re having an allergic reaction to those proteins.

Some people get bitten and don’t have any reaction at all. Some people have a very pronounced reaction. And some people show a reaction that develops over time – the more they’re exposed to the proteins, the more sensitive their immune systems become to it, and the stronger their reaction becomes.

Is it possible for bedbugs to spread a blood-borne disease between people? The answer is no, but that’s a very controversial subject. On one hand, all of our research shows that it is possible for a bedbug to become inoculated with a disease. So if it bites a person with hepatitis B, then a bedbug can, in fact, carry hepatitis B after that. But on the other hand, they do not seem to be capable of passing hepatitis on to another person they bite.

There are several theories as to why this is. One theory holds that a virus can’t replicate inside a bedbug, another holds that the viral load just isn’t high enough to pose a threat to other people. Some people argue that it’s because bedbugs don’t transmit blood from previous bites into their current hosts.

So no one knows why for certain, but the bottom line is that it just doesn’t happen. Bedbugs have really run rampant in a lot of places since World War II, and in those 60-plus years there has not been one case of bedbugs spreading a disease between two people.

Is there any advice you want to give people who suspect they’re finding bedbug bites?? If you’re worried you have bedbugs, I would contact a bedbug professional. You might have seen an article in the New York Times a while back about bedbug-sniffing beagles. I’d really recommend going that route. A human technician can make mistakes, but a well-trained dog is extremely accurate at locating bedbugs. In both of the cases I referred to earlier – when I saw patients who had been misdiagnosed as having scabies – they confirmed their bedbug infestation by hiring a company like that. And in both cases, the landlord paid for it!

Thanks, Dr. Mudgil!

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