Don’t let the bedbugs bite

What’s crawling between your sheets at night?

Illustration by Nicole O’Sullivan

Going to another country as an au pair is something that has always been on my bucket list. So last summer, after saying goodbye to my parents and promising that I will call them every night before bed, I travelled to Rome for the very first time. My first night felt surreal. There were a million differences between Rome and Dublin. It was hot, for one. Stepping out of my room, I could hear crickets chirping, and I was excited to see that looking up at the night sky, I could actually see stars. It was the beginning of what was to be one of the most memorable summer I’ve had so far, and I knew it. I slept that night smiling.

A week and a half later, while walking down one of Rome’s vias, I noticed a disproportionate number of bites on both my arms. They were red and small, but numerous. Mosquitos had been plaguing me in the evenings ever since arriving in Rome, and so dismissing them as mosquito bites, I pulled my sleeve back down my arm and continued my adventures in the city. Three days later, the small, red bites on my arms had turned into rash. What looked like small separate islands before had converged together and now looked like a red archipelago, stretching from the crease at my elbow up to the edge of my wrist. Cue panicked Facebook video call to my mother. “It’s probably just skin asthma,” she said. “You know, from the heat? It will go away on its own”.

It didn’t go away on its own. A few days later, the archipelago had turned into a whole country. I showed my au pair mother the rash, and after an appropriate amount of concerned remarks, she asked me, “Is it only on your arms?” The question had not occurred to me before, but not wanting to inject awkwardness into the conversation, I replied, “Yes, I think so.” Later that night, the question still bugged me, so I finally faced the bathroom mirror for a top-to-bottom body inspection. I found, to my horror, that the bites, now a rash, was not only on both of my arms, but also on the inside of my thighs, down my calves, and even around the soles of my feet.

Like any alarmed millennial with a health-related concern, I rushed to my laptop and turned to Google. “Small red bites turned red rash,” I typed on the search bar. It brought me to a website that specialised in identifying insects from their bites, and based on the description that was accompanied by pictures, what I had was characteristic of bed bugs.

I was horrified. I jumped up out of the bed, stripped the covers off, and hurriedly put on fresh ones. I took a hot shower, and afterwards searched for any clothing I had that covered the entirety of my limbs. I wore socks to bed. Even at night, the temperature in Rome was in the mid-20s, so I paid the price for wearing my sleeping costume in buckets of sweat. I went back to Google, and once again, looked up bed bugs.

Humans have been dealing with bed bugs even going as far back as 400 BC, and their fossilized remains have been found in many ancient Greek and Roman archaeological sites. Germany, China, Italy, France, it seems like there isn’t a place in the world that has not already been infested. In the 1940s, we came close to eradicating them in the developed world, but because of the rise of international travel and pesticide resistance, they are now once again a huge problem. The little creatures have plagued the human civilisation for so long that we have turned their existence into a very well-known rhyme, which was written when people in the Middle Ages used to sleep in wooden beds with ropes tied in a net-like fashion.

But bed bugs are not exclusively nocturnal creatures. They are attracted to their victims primarily by detecting carbon dioxide in their breath, and likes to feed on its host without it being noticed. Most people do not feel when a bed bug bites them, and a bite can take up to nine days to become visible, which means that one may not know that their bed has bed bugs until they’ve already been bitten by it. Their detection is made all the more difficult by the fact that it is very difficult to see the actual living insects themselves, and so more often than not, almost like mythical creatures, only the things that they leave behind point to their existence: eggs and eggshells, bloodstains on pillowcases and sheets, or shed skins. This is why bed bugs are infamously known for how challenging it is to eradicate them completely from a room or a house. A quick google search brought up horror stories of people completely stripping their apartments and putting their clothes in a black bin bag in the middle of the room before the extermination even began. They can also go for weeks, even months, without feeding.

If you are lucky (or unlucky) enough to see a bed bug with your own two eyes, you will see an oval shaped insect that is about 4-5mm in length. Its colour, ranging from light brown to reddish brown, depends on its maturity, and whether or not it has recently feasted on an unfortunate victim. When a bed bug finds a victim, it typically finds exposed skin on a sleeping individual and pierces it with a “beak” or a rostrum before sawing back and forth through the host’s tissue. During the process, the bed bug injects its victim with saliva that has painkillers and blood thinners. It only takes five to ten minutes for the insect to become completely filled with blood with the help of pressure from the blood vessel itself. After the feeding session, the insect will return to its hiding place, usually somewhere warm and well-hidden, like the insides of bedsheets, linings of mattresses, and even behind wallpapers and picture frames. However, aside from rashes and allergies to their bites, bed bugs are not currently known to carry diseases, which is perhaps why I’ve actually grown quite fond of them during my time away, and, perhaps disturbingly, saw them almost as my invisible pets. I slept on that bed in Rome for three more weeks and arrived in Ireland mostly unscathed, with the exception of the last of the rashes and a knowledge of bedbugs that I didn’t know I needed.

Danielle Olavario

Danielle Olavario is a former SciTech Editor of Trinity News. She is a Microbiology graduate.