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Bedbugs a Pain, But Don't Appear to Transmit Disease, Expert Tells Clayton Audience

Dr. Richard Houseman, an entomologist at the University of Missouri, spoke Friday.

While bedbugs may worry us into staying up late into the night, there isn't any evidence that their bites can transmit disease, a bug expert told a Clayton crowd on Friday.

"It's much safer than being bitten by a tick," said Dr. Richard Houseman, an associate professor of entomology at the University of Missouri. Houseman spoke at during a presentation jointly organized and the Academy of Science St. Louis.

Bedbugs have been around for generations and most likely came to the New World from the Middle East, by way of Europe. A recurrence of bedbug infestations has happened more recently in conjunction with technology that has made it easier to travel.

The critters feed on blood because it is a source of protein, a dietary need that allows them to reproduce, Houseman said. Unlike some bugs who liquefy tissue for consumption, bedbugs inject their straw-like noses into humans, suck out blood and move on. Bedbug bites often appear in a line, indicating that the same bug has taken a bite, moved farther along the surface of the skin and bit again.

He recommended several tips on how to scout for—and avoid—bed bugs.

When visiting a multi-user facility such as a hotel or motel room, or a gym:

  • Scour the headboard for cracks that might contain bed bugs. Headboards are often the most common host for the creatures in these locations. Also check for stains on the mattress, a remnant of the dirty water bed bugs excrete after they have drawn blood, and examine the plastic lining that often is placed along the floorboard.
  • Avoid unpacking clothing into wooden drawers, where bed bugs can hide. Also avoid placing luggage on luggage racks, which can conceal bed bugs.
  • Take as little as possible with you, minimizing the gear that might attract bed bugs.

When returning home from a trip:

  • Lay a clean, light-colored sheet down on the floor and unpack your suitcase on top of it.
  • Instead of washing your clothes or throwing them in a hamper, put them in the dryer first. Let them run on high heat for about 45 minutes. The powerful heat should kill bed bugs at any stage of their life cycle.
  • Store suitcases in clear plastic zip-up cases that with zippers that have tiny teeth. This will prevent any lingering bed bugs from entering or exiting.

Around the house:

  • Avoid clutter, in which bed bugs can live.
  • Caulk and seal cracks.
  • Use mattress encasements.
  • If you know you have bed bugs, several options are available for attempting to remove them, including chemical or nonchemical treatments.

Programming by the nonprofit OASIS is generally geared toward those 50 and older, though the presentation was open to the public. Since 1982, OASIS has offered lectures and other events meant to encourage learning, community interaction and a healthy lifestyles among older adults.

It decided to host a conversation about bedbugs because the topic has been in the news a lot recently, educational program manager Allison Woodworth said. In choosing programs, she said, her approach is to take a look at what's going on in the world. She consulted with Rose Jansen, director of the annual fund and science speakers program for the Academy of Science, who then approached Houseman.

"There'd been a lot recently about bed bugs," Jansen said. The Academy of Science sponsors programs with OASIS throughout the year, including a presentation later this month in Clayton about Darwin and religion.

Attendance at the programs varies, though 30 people attend each on average, Woodworth said. About 20 attended the Friday talk.

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