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June 13, 2009 at 4:30 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

When the Bedbugs Bite

By Katie from SLN More Blogs by This Author

Contrary to popular belief, parasitic insects are not always a sign of poor hygiene. These bugs are very adept at terrorizing anyone they come into contact with, no matter how clean. This is especially true in the summer, when children are sharing all sorts of things at friends' houses, and using old furniture at camp grounds. Head lice and bedbugs are two of the more common problem parasitic bugs.

Head Lice

Adult head lice are six legged insects approximately the size of a sesame seed. They are tan or grayish-white in color, and have hook-like claws at the end of each leg. The female adult louse lays her eggs, called nits, directly onto hair shafts, where they stay firmly attached until they hatch after about one week.

"The National Pest Management Association claims that, in the past five years, pest control companies have seen bedbug calls go up 70 percent."

The baby lice, or nymphs, begin to feed on the blood in a person's scalp. Within seven days, the nymphs are mature adult lice. These mature lice can live on a human head for up to a month, as long as they continue to feed on blood. If a louse falls off its human host, it will die within two days. Head lice are easily transferred from head to head when items like combs, brushes, hats, and towels are shared.


Bedbugs begin life about the size of a poppy seed, and grow up to one quarter-inch long. From above, they appear oval-shaped. Their bodies are flattened from top to bottom, making it easy for the bedbugs to fit into furniture, small cracks and crevices in the living spaces of people. Their coloring is whitish immediately after molting, but otherwise ranges from light tan to deep brown or burnt orange. Often, the blood they ingest is visible as a dark mass in the middle of their bodies.

As the name implies, bedbugs prefer to live around bed frames, mattresses, box springs, and within the fabrics of bedding and clothing. They tend to be active during the night, when people are sleeping and it's easy to feed on a small amount of their blood. Unlike head lice, bedbugs can survive without host blood for several months, making them much more difficult to eradicate after an infestation.

When They Bite

It is pretty easy to tell if you have lice crawling in your hair. A head lice infestation might feel like a tickling feeling under the hair and on the scalp. The bites themselves can lead to itching (an allergic reaction to the bites), sores (from the scratching), and infection that results from the open sores. Head lice will only live on people. If you have pets, there is no need to worry about them becoming infested.

Bedbugs are tougher to identify. Since they do not live, but only feed, on people, they must be captured if you want to be certain. When they bite, they inject a small amount of saliva while sucking out the blood. Repeated exposure to this saliva might cause mild to intense allergic reaction. The bites look similar to those of fleas or mosquitoes. As with head lice, scratching at the itchy bites can lead to open wounds and infection. Bedbugs will bite any warm-blooded animal in your home. In the case of an infestation, pets are just as susceptible as humans.

Real Life Stats and Stories

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, six to 12 million children have head lice infestations each year. The situation is no doubt aggravated by the fact that a lot of summer camps do not check campers for head lice upon arrival. A survey conducted by a manufacturer of lice-ridding hair products found that 24 percent of camp directors reported head lice outbreaks in 2007. One New Hampshire camp discovered 21 cases of head lice in one day. Other reports of fun-spoiling lice outbreaks include a teenage sleepover in Mississippi and the near-shearing of two young English girls with very long hair. In the summer of 2008, a camp in Maryland had to send out letters to previous campers, close one cabin for an entire month, and throw away several mattresses after a bedbug infestation. More recently, two shelters in North Carolina have had to close due to bedbug problems.

There is currently a discussion about the supposed increasing numbers of bedbugs, which may be attributed to the insects' resistance to common pesticides. Additionally, the bugs' mobility is supported by apartment, dorm, and hotel living, and widespread travel.

The National Pest Management Association claims that, in the past five years, pest control companies have seen bedbug calls go up 70 percent. In fact, the issue has even sparked government interest. The "Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite Act of 2009" has been brought before the House of Representatives. The bill calls for improved bedbug identification training, and would place bedbugs alongside rodents and cockroaches in the Department of Health and Human Services. However, since bedbugs do not appear to pose any real health risk, it is questionable how seriously the bill will be taken.

What to Do

If you suspect that your family or living space have or will become infested by lice or bedbugs, you can take the following steps to protect yourself:

  • Keep clothing and bedding washed and properly stored (not on the floor).
  • Check family members and luggage after vacations, camping, or simply being in close quarters with others.
  • Pull beds away from walls, tuck in bedding so that is doesn't touch the floor, and place frame legs in containers of mineral oil.
  • Educate children about the risks of sharing anything that touches hair or the scalp.
  • Have natural lice-ridding solution on hand to avoid further infestation and chemical irritation.
  • Inspect furniture - especially near the floor and where heads rest. Have infested furniture professionally treated.
  • Try to get a sample of the insect if you suspect bedbugs. There are many other bugs that look like them; it may take a professional to determine the species.

If you're sending anybody to summer camp this year, please look for lice and bedbugs beforehand. Children found to have head lice can be sent home, and suffer other social ramifications. Even though these parasites are relatively harmless, the irritation they can cause is a worthy reason to take precautions.


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