Study: Bites Can Induce Potentially Deadly Systemic Reactions

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A report out of Australia demonstrates for the first time that bed bugs can induce a potentially dangerous (and possibly even deadly) systemic reaction in individuals repeatedly exposed to them.

March 8, 2017

Editor’s note: This article is based on an Oct. 26, 2016, paper in Austral Entomology (Australian Entomological Society) titled “Systemic and erythrodermic reactions following repeated exposure to bites from the Common bed bug Cimex lectularius (Hemiptera: Cimicidae).” The paper can be found here. The following information is reprinted in PCT with permission of Stephen Doggett, Department of Medical Entomology, Pathology West — Westmead Hospital, Westmead, Australia.

As always, pest management professionals should never offer medical advice to their clients. This article is provided for informational purposes only.

Bed bugs (Cimex spp.) readily bite humans, producing a range of cutaneous reactions. This article documents systemic reactions in two patients following repeated bites from the common bed bug, Cimex lectularius. Both patients had previously fed bed bugs on themselves without any serious complication, however, upon feeding a new batch of the insects, they subsequently developed systemic urticarial reactions. Both were admitted to an emergency department for treatment and subsequently made a full recovery.

Patient 1 fed 40 to 50 bed bugs on himself and after eight minutes, he developed itch, swelling of the face, lethargy, profuse sweating and widespread wheals on the torso and limbs. The reaction disappeared in five hours after treatment with systemic prednisone and antihistamines. Patient 2 developed a similar reaction after feeding five to six bed bugs on himself. In this case, the patient also developed chest tightness and breathing difficulties. Following a similar treatment, symptoms disappeared in four hours.

In light of the increasing exposure of this insect to the general public, systemic reactions in patients may present more commonly to the medical practitioner. This report demonstrates how bed bugs can be a serious threat to the health of the community. If people are constantly exposed to bed bug bites (especially in low-income housing), then the effects can be extremely harmful to the individual.

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DISCUSSION. There are a limited number of published cases of systemic reactions to bed bugs and symptomology has been ill defined. Consequently, these reactions can create a diagnostic dilemma for health-care professionals. A diverse number of dermatological differential diagnoses exist. Multiple bed bug bites are typically characterized by a cluster or linear distribution of erythematous macular lesions and can progress to wheals and widespread urticarial (Doggett & Russell 2009).

Although rare, systemic reactions can involve widespread pruritis, asthma, anaphylaxis and fever (Doggett et al. 2012). There is increasing evidence to support sensitization after initial exposure to bed bugs with the latency period between bed bug bite and cutaneous reaction decreasing substantially between subsequent bites (Reinhardt et al. 2009).

In the case of the 28-year-old male, he had been exposed to bed bug bites since November 2012 and has developed progressively more severe cutaneous reactions from each subsequent bite.

CONCLUSION. Physical impacts of bed bug bites are of growing concern, and there has been a surge of legal disputes throughout the western world recently. State and local governments have been overwhelmed with complaints by residents in regards to bed bug infestations, which are at times resistant to pest control measures (Aultman 2013). Bed bug infestations have become a particular problem among the socially disadvantaged, where infestations often go untreated, leading to massive bed bug populations and ongoing bites. Therefore, patients with systemic reactions may increasingly present to medical practitioners.

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