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Bed bugs were a plague all over the world for centuries until about 1950, when DDT was widely available for killing them. Now bed bugs have developed a resistance to bed bug sprays, and scientists are looking for new ways to control them.

Do you remember you mother tucking you into bed and turning off the light while saying, "Sleep tight, and don't let the bed bugs bite"? If you grew up in the 1980's or 1990's or early 2000's, you probably thought she was kidding. But if you grew up in the 1950's or 1960's or earlier, she probably wasn't kidding. All over the world, for thousands of years, blood sucking bed bugs were a perennial health problem until pesticides were invented the early 1940's to kill them. Most of the world was bed bug-free for several generations, but as of 2012, bed bugs have developed resistance to all the bed bug sprays that are safe to use around people.

In Case You've Never Encountered a Bed Bug

Before 1940, just about everyone was all too familiar with bed bugs. Nowadays, some people still have not run into them. Bed bugs get their name by their attraction to warm, soft, protective beds. Although they are a blood sucking parasite, primarily a city parasite (bed bugs congregate where there are lots of people), they don't spend much time attached to their human hosts. Bed bugs sense carbon dioxide as it is exhaled by sleeping humans, climb up bed overs,and  use heat sensors on their antennae to locate the "juiciest" sites on the human's body. They secrete an anesthetic so you don't feel them and an anticoagulant to make your blood flow freely so they can spend about five to ten minutes filling themselves with human blood. The bed bug then retreats to some safe corner and molts, not feeding again until it's at the next stage in its life cycle. If nobody does anything about them, thousands of bed bugs can infest a single room, waiting to hitchhike on furniture or luggage to other locations. A single human being can be bitten as many as 500 times in a single night.

Most people have no sensation of the bed bug while it is biting, but many have an allergic reaction to the bite after the bug has had an opportunity to escape. Bed bug bites:

  • Occur at night. The peak time for bed bug attacks is about an hour before dawn.
  • Leave an undetectable mark unless there is an allergic reaction. . Bed bug bites can cause a flat whelp or a raise red bump, and take two days to two weeks to resolve. 
  • Sometimes cause system allergic reactions or even anaphylaxis. The more times you have been bitten, the more serious the allergic reaction will be.
  • Can cause anemia in people who are severely bitten. The most common victims of multiple bed bug bites are babies and adults who paralyzed or immobile.
  • Induce anxiety or insomnia in people who wake up to blood on their pillowcases or patterns of vampire-like markings.

Why Don't Bed Bug Sprays Work Any More?

Bed bugs have developed pesticide resistance through some of the same mechanisms that bacteria have developed antibiotic-resistance. Through random genetic mutations, there have been a few bed bugs that were naturally resistant to malathion, pyrethroids, and dichlorvos. There is a pesticide called carbamate that still kills them, but it is not safe for use around children. Those few bed bugs that survived the pesticides managed to escape, and spread themselves around with human activity. A peculiarity of bed bug genetics is that breeding with bed bugs from another building results in offspring that feed more, so not only did the succeeding generations of bed bugs have a natural ability to survive pesticides, they were even more voracious blood suckers.

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  • PMID: 26836814
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