Bedbugs Are Pesky but Not Harmful

Researchers Say There's Little Evidence That Bedbugs Carry Human Diseases

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 31, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

March 31, 2009 -- Bedbugs may be getting a bad rap. The blood-sucking bugs have been thought to carry a host of different diseases, but a new review of research on the pesky critters suggests they may be less harmful than previously thought.

Researchers say bedbugs have been known as a human parasite for thousands of years, but scientific studies of the insect have been limited.

In the study, researchers reviewed 53 recent studies on bedbugs and their health and medical effects. The results showed that although bedbugs have been blamed for the spread of up to 40 different human diseases, there is little evidence to suggest they are carriers of human disease.

But the review also showed that there also isn't any evidence to back any particular treatment for bedbug bites or how to get rid of the insects.

Usually bedbug bites produce "no reaction with a barely visible punctum at the location of the bite," write the researchers. Bedbug bites can itch; if not made worse by scratching this will resolve within a week.

But some people may experience more complex skin reactions. Common treatment options for bothersome bedbug bites include antihistamines, topical corticosteroids, and anti-itching medications.

If the bite area becomes infected, antibiotics may be needed. In severe cases in which bedbug bites affect the body -- comparable to a life-threatening allergic reaction -- injection of adrenaline may be necessary.

Eradicating the insects is extremely difficult. Researchers say using pesticides to control bedbugs is complicated by increasing resistance to insecticides and health concerns about spraying mattresses with pesticides.

Preventing Bedbug Bites

Bedbug infestations have been on the rise in homes, apartments, hotel rooms, hospitals, and dormitories in the U.S. since 1980 because of international travel, immigration, and increasing insecticide resistance.

Researchers say the best way to prevent bedbug bites is to avoid them because no repellents for the insects have been conclusively proven effective. But the mosquito repellent oil of lemon eucalyptus may help.

Bedbugs and their droppings are easily visible, and the bugs usually don't travel more than 3 to 6 feet from a suitable human host. Researchers recommend inspecting the following hiding places when sleeping in hotels or other unfamiliar environments:

  • Mattress cords
  • Cracks and crevices in box springs
  • Back of headboards
  • Spaces under baseboards

"Items purchased at garage sales and resale shops, especially mattresses, box springs, and bedding, should be carefully inspected for bed bugs before they are brought into homes because they may initiate an infestation," write researcher Jerome Goddard, PhD, of Mississippi State University, and colleagues in TheJournal of the American Medical Association.

(What do bedbug bites look like? For a closer look at bedbugs, see WebMD's Bedbugs Slideshow.)

Show Sources


Goddard, J. The Journal of the American Medical Association, April 1, 2009; vol 301: pp 1358-1366.

News release, American Medical Association.

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