Bed bugs? | “The Bites are so Itchy, we Scratch until we Bleed!”

By Marcia Anderson

I receive complaints from residents who have, or think they have bed bugs, and are desperately seeking help. These people have exhausted all possible sources of help: landlords, pest control operators, over-the-counter products, and online solutions. Desperate, they contact the EPA, and are referred to a Bed Bug expert in their Region – me. The first thing I do is calm them down and reassure them that there is hope. They can get rid of bed bugs. By sharing this story that crossed my desk, I hope to help others in similar situations.

Sean e-mailed me; “We are convinced we have bed bugs. My wife thinks she found a bed bug. We have read articles on-line, and looked at pictures, and then we sprayed, heated, caulked, washed, dried, and wrapped our mattress and box spring in bed bug cases (encasements). We are getting bitten every night. After thorough inspection we still see nothing. Is it possible they are elsewhere in the house, in our vehicles? Should we spray more? And what brand?”

My follow up call revealed that Sean’s family had moved recently, and the itching continued through the entire move.  Whatever was bothering them had traveled with them. And the problem was becoming unbearable. Had they collected any live bugs?  No. Nor had they seen any of the tell tale signs of bed bugs: shed skins, corpses, blood stains, or droppings on the bed sheets.

Scabies mites burrow into the skin resulting in open sores on hands, wrists, elbows, or anywhere on the body. Scabies is diagnosed through microscopic examination of skin scrapings taken from the affected area.

I told Sean, “From what you describe, and the controls you have put in place, I don’t think you have bed bugs. Let’s try Plan B.”  Was the family being plagued with spiders, carpet beetles, mites?  I suggested he contact the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program at Cornell University.

Sean wrote Cornell, “Marcia Anderson of EPA referred me to you. After describing our situation, Marcia doesn’t think we have bed bugs. We know what they look like, where to find them, and how to get rid of them.  The bites are so itchy, we scratch until we bleed! We have tried numerous anti-itch creams, but none take away the itch!”

Cornell provided some excellent information and recommended a pest control company inspection. Later, a frustrated Sean called me again. ‘Still no bugs but horrid itching.’ I suggested they visit a dermatologist to diagnose the bites.

Sean wrote back; “Marcia, you were right. We thought we had bed bugs, but it turned out to be scabies! We were successfully treated by a dermatologist. My son got them at daycare.”

About the Author: Marcia is the bed bug and vector management specialist for the Pesticides Program in Edison. She has a BS in Biology from Monmouth, second degree in Environmental Design-Landscape Architecture from Rutgers, Masters in Instruction and Curriculum from Kean, and is a PhD in Environmental Management candidate from Montclair – specializing in Integrated Pest Management and Environmental Communications. Prior to EPA, and concurrently, she has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology and Oceanography at Kean University for 14 years.

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