Bed Bugs and the Aging Community

Human Bed Bug

Human bed bug is typically reddish-brown in color, oval-shaped, wingless and has sucking mouthparts to suck blood from its host. Photo by Jody Green, Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County.

Bed bugs are blood sucking insects that primarily feed on the exposed skin of humans while they sleep. Though they are not known to spread diseases to humans, their presence and feeding behavior causes great social, emotional and financial stress to many individuals and their families. Whether we choose to be believe it or not, bed bugs are real and they’re closer than we may want to believe. They can be seen in different shapes and sizes based on age and feeding status (fed vs. hungry).

Engorged bed bug nymph, poppy seed for scale, bed bug egg, unfed bed bug nymph.

Engorged bed bug nymph, poppy seed for scale, bed bug egg, unfed bed bug nymph. Photo by Jody Green, Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County.

The key to getting rid of bed bugs in the residence, whether it be a house, apartment or multi-unit complex such as an assisted living center, is awareness, early detection and active treatment. Some groups are more likely to struggle longer trying to get rid of bed bugs from their residences. It has nothing to do with geographical location, age, gender, cleanliness or housekeeping. There are a number of reasons why the aging community may face greater challenges when it comes to battling bed bugs, and I will outline some of them.

  • The lack of awareness, impaired vision and inability to lift heavy objects make it less likely that an individual will catch the early signs of bed bugs.
  • Newly retired individuals may vacation more often, stay in hotels, travel by mass transit and expose themselves to places where they could pick up hitchhiking bed bugs.
  • Seniors living in multi-unit housings face the challenge of migrating bed bugs moving from adjacent units. This can occur in independent living apartments or assisted living arrangements. 
  • Downsizing into smaller living spaces results in items such as luggage, bags, purses stored closer to the bed room. These are items that bed bugs may hitchhike on and be carried into the home. 
bed bugs nymphs and sesame seed

Bed bug nymphs with a sesame seed for scale. Photo by Jody Green, Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County.

  • Difficulty sleeping and increased nighttime movement can spread bed bugs to different locations within the apartment like the sofa or recliner, so infestations may be a great distance from the bed. This increases the sleeping area required for a thorough accurate inspection. 
  • Disabled individuals may be harboring bed bugs in wheelchair, hospital bed and other medical devices, which are often overlooked during regular inspections.
  • The overall decrease in insecticide use and reliance or belief that advertised “natural” remedies allow bed bug populations to increase unknowingly.
  • Continuous visitors through a variety of relationships (hired caregivers, grandchildren, family members) may unknowingly transport bed bugs between locations.
Engorged bed bug nymph, flax seed for scale, unfed bed bug nymph

Engorged bed bug nymph, flax seed for scale, unfed bed bug nymph. Photo by Jody Green, Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County.

  • Acquisition or transportation of infested items such as used or discarded furniture or clothing may introduce and/or re-infest locations.
  • Thirty percent of the population do not react to bed bug bites, and a significantly higher percentage of seniors over the age of 65 report no reaction in active bed bug infestations. This lack of reaction in the aging population mean infestations become severe before action is taken.
  • It was recently found that long-term exposure to bed bug feeding may result in systemic emergency reactions that may require medical treatment. With weakened immune systems and lack of reaction, chronic bed bug feeding could become a serious health risk.
  • Those with low or fixed income cannot afford treatment or purchase supplies such as bags, totes, encasements or interceptors to help themselves. Populations of bed bugs therefore multiply and become more of a challenge to manage.
Engorged adult bed bug, apple seed for scale, unfed adult bed bug.

Engorged adult bed bug, apple seed for scale, unfed adult bed bug. Photo by Jody Green, Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County.

  • Labor intensive actions such as laundering and bagging all belongings is often too laborious without assistance. If the proper preparation is not complete, bed bug treatments may not be effective. This would allow the populations to rebound and increase pesticide exposure if multiple re-treatments are necessary.
  • Often individuals do not want to share with landlords, property managers, neighbors, friends or family members that they have bed bugs because of the social stigma. By the time the infestation is realized, it may be severe and expensive.
Mattress with fecal stains

Bed bug signs include dried blood, fecal marks and cast skins on the mattress. Photo by Jody Green, Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County.

Bed bugs under dust cover

Bed bugs hiding under the dust cover on the bottom of the box spring. Photo by Jody Green, Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County.

The first step in any pest management situation is to identify the pest. If you think you have bed bugs or have any questions, contact your local extension office and if you’d like more information, please visit our website for current bed bug resources.

Keep calm and respect the critters,

Jody

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