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Are bed bugs' feces worse than their bites?

March 12, 2018—As if the mental image of bed bugs crawling around your mattress weren't bad enough, new research suggests the creepy critters' feces could potentially make you sick.

Bed bugs don't spread diseases, though their bites occasionally leave a red, bumpy skin rash. However, the study found that bed bugs' feces contain a lot of histamines. In humans, histamines are a common part of the body's immune response. These compounds regulate inflammation and assist other immune systems in their work in all sorts of ways. But histamines can also cause allergic reactions—like rashes and breathing problems—in certain people. That's why they're used to provoke a reaction in allergy tests.

Researchers say bed bugs give off histamine to signal to other bed bugs when they've found a good home, such as a mattress where they can feed on human blood.

For the study, researchers measured histamine levels in dust collected from homes which had had bed bugs—before and after they were eradicated—and in homes where no evidence of bed bugs had been found. Then they compared the findings. Histamine levels were "remarkably high"—up to 20 times higher, in fact—in homes where there had been bed bugs. Not only that, but those histamines survived the extreme heat and chemicals used to exterminate the pests and continued to linger for at least three months afterwards.

But is it a health risk?

The short answer: Researchers don't know yet. But their findings show that people in infected homes may be exposed to a lot of airborne histamine in much the same way that people are exposed to other indoor pest allergens. And bed bugs have been on the rise since the early 2000s.

The potential health risks associated with bed-bug histamine might be as bad as those associated with cockroaches and dust mites, the researchers suspect. They hope to study the issue further, as well as ways to determine the best ways to get rid of histamine in infested homes.

To read more on the findings, check out the study in the journal PLOS One.

Bed bugs, be gone

Bed bugs can be hard to evict once they've hitched a ride to your home. But here are some steps you can take to prevent an infestation, courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

  • Check secondhand furniture and beds for bed bug signs (such as reddish stains or tiny dark spots) before bringing it home.
  • If you use a shared laundry area, remove clothes directly from the dryer to a clean plastic bag and then fold them at home. A dryer on high heat can kill bed bugs and offers some peace of mind against any pests loitering in the common area.
  • Reduce clutter to decrease bed bug hiding spots.
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