Beyond the itch: The real cost of bed bugs

Bed bugs hurt us more than we think
Photo Credit: AJC1, Creative Commons license

By Sydney Boles
Medill Reports

Andrea Sturm was teetering on the edge of homelessness in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood when the bed bugs came. Too itchy to focus, furious at her landlord for allegedly neglecting the problem, Sturm sprayed her apartment with alcohol to kill the pests. Then she lit a cigarette.

The burn marks covered her thighs in mottled purple knots.

She must have spilled alcohol on her clothes in her frenzy.

Hams Peeler, 23, called their landlord right away when the itching started. The pest control company their landlord contracted failed to eliminate the problem, they said, so Peeler was moved to a second apartment while the issue was addressed. That apartment, too, was infested. Finally, Peeler abandoned their home and started couch surfing in desperation. In total, they spent $180 replacing clothes and furniture, plus the expense of eating out more without the use of a kitchen.

A 2013 report in The American Journal of Case Reports recounts the saga of a 62-year old woman with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder whose recurring bed bug infestations left her in a “negative psychological state.” After two infestations and the suspicion of a third, the woman jumped to her death.

Entomologists agree that after a fallow period in the era of effective but dangerous pesticides, bed bugs are back, and they’re worse than ever. Because these tiny crawlers don’t transmit diseases, scientists have for the most part dismissed bed bugs as annoying but harmless pests. But a growing body of research is showing that the psychological – and financial – costs are higher than one might think.

Scientists believe that cimex lectularius were sucking our blood as early as 1,500 B.C.E., when they hitched a ride out of Egyptian caves and into Egyptian cities. The tiny insects thrive in warm, dark places, making our bedding their perfect habitat. They feed primarily on human blood, and, according to a 2011 survey by the National Pest Management Association, are most likely to afflict young, urban renters. That’s because that demographic is likely to move more frequently, spreading the infestation as they go.

Stephen Perron, Ph.D., one of the researchers behind the study of the woman who committed suicide after struggling with bed bugs, is also behind a new body of research showing that bed bugs can cause PTSD symptoms like obsessive thoughts, hypervigilance, paranoia and depression.

Medill Reports collected anonymous data by surveying members of Facebook groups popular among young urbanites, which confirmed those findings. The physical symptoms of bed bugs (itching, redness, and in some cases shortness of breath) were less common – and less severe – than the psychological impacts. Of 103 respondents, 96 percent reported hyper vigilance or paranoia after having bed bugs; 88 percent reported insomnia. Seventy percent reported stressful or traumatic dreams and a small but noteworthy 8 percent reported self-destructive or reckless behavior.

Physical and Psychological Effects Due to Bed Bugs

The physical and psychological toll of bed bugs conducted from survey results (Sydney Boles/MEDILL)

“It has been six months since we moved,” said one anonymized respondent. “And I still freak out and get paranoid about any minor itch or red spot on my skin. I still have trouble sleeping at times and get a psychosomatic ‘crawly feeling’ when trying to sleep.”

Another said, “Whenever I get any kind of bug bite, I still get panic attacks.”

Did Bed Bugs Affect Your Finances?

Financial toll of bed bug treatments conducted from survey results (Sydney Boles/ MEDILL)

The financial toll was significant as well. Respondents spent an average of $685 on treatments, laundry, replacing clothes and furniture, and living elsewhere during treatments. Nearly half reported that the process had some impact on their finances; an additional third said bed bug treatment took a large toll on their income. One respondent said they were fired because their employer worried they would bring the bugs to work. Another kept the infestation a secret from the building management – who was legally obligated to treat the problem – because they were afraid telling would mean having to replace all their furniture, which they could not afford.

On top of the financial stress is the social stigma. Ninety percent of survey respondents reported feeling shame about having bed bugs, and no wonder: coworkers, friends and family often go to great lengths to avoid possible contamination. There are less savory associations too: poverty, primarily, and uncleanliness.

But pest control experts urge citizens to avoid making assumptions about what kind of people get bed bugs. “Anyone can get bed bugs in their home,” said Ron Harrison, Ph.D., who works for Orkin Pest Control, in a press release. “They are not a sign of uncleanliness. Bed bugs only need blood to survive. We have treated for bed bugs in everything from million dollar homes to public housing.”

The physical, psychological and financial challenges posed by bed bugs are disproportionately challenging for vulnerable groups, including people in poverty, those with language barriers, and those with other health issues. Therefore, as incidences of bed bug infestations rise, entomologists and sociological researchers agree that governments in cities where bed bugs are rampant ought to be involved not only in treating the pests but in supporting vulnerable groups who suffer from their presence.

It’s impossible to fully prevent bed bugs, but smart guidelines include checking hotel bedding for little black bugs before getting into bed, and avoiding bringing home furniture and clothes by the side of the road.

CLARIFICATION: This story was amended on Dec. 1 to clarify that Andrea Sturm did not intend to start a fire by lighting a cigarette; the cigarette ignited the alcohol she had spread to eliminate the bed bugs. She also lit a lighter, not a match,  as stated in an earlier version of this story.

Photo at top: Creative Commons, Flickr:Gilles San Martin