Sometimes it’s the little things that make the difference between a good life and a bad one in a survival setting. The little things I’m talking about are bugs. Of all the creepy-crawlies that raise an alarm in a household, few are worse than bed bugs. Although poor standards of living and unsanitary conditions have been associated with bed bug infestations, even the cleanest home in the most developed country can harbor these parasites.
Bed bugs were once so common that every house in many urban areas was thought to harbor them in the early 20th century; they declined with the advent of modern pesticides like DDT, but a resurgence of these creatures has been noted in North America, Europe, and even Australia over the last decade or so. Cities such as New York and London have seen 5 times as many cases reported over the last few years. This may have to do with the restriction of DDT-like pesticides or perhaps the general over-use of pesticides leading to resistance. Imagine what the situation would be if a disaster took you off the grid for good.
The common bed bug (Cimex Lectularius) is a small wingless insect that is thought to have originated in caves where both bats and humans made their homes. Ancient Greeks, such as Aristotle, mention them in their writings. They were such a serious issue during WWII that Zyklon, a Hydrogen Cyanide gas infamously used in Nazi concentration camps, was implemented to get rid of infestations.
There are a number of species which are found in differing climates. Unlike lice, the subject of one of our recent article, bed bugs are not always species-specific. For example, Cimex hemipterus, a bed bug found in tropical regions, also infests poultry and bats.
Adult bed bugs are light to medium brown and have oval, flat bodies about 4mm long (slightly more after eating). Juveniles are called “nymphs” and are lighter in color, almost translucent. There are several nymph stages before adulthood; to progress to adulthood, a meal of blood (yours!) is necessary.
Bed bugs, which are mostly (but not exclusively) active at night, bite the exposed skin of sleeping humans to feed on their blood; they then retreat to hiding places in seams of mattresses, linens, and furniture. Their bites are usually painless, but later on, itchy raised welts on the skin may develop. The severity of the response varies from person to person.
Bed bugs can make you miserable and have been known to harbor other disease-causing organisms, but there have not, as yet, been cases of illness specifically caused by them. This is in contrast to body lice or fleas, which has been associated with outbreaks of Typhus, Relapsing fever, and even Plague.
Strangely, bed bugs don’t like to live in your clothes, like body lice, or on your skin or hair, like fleas. They apparently don’t care much for heat, and prefer to spend more time in your backpack or luggage than your underarm.
Many confuse the bites of bed bugs with mosquitos or fleas. Most flea bites will appear around the ankles, while bed bugs will bite any area of skin exposed during the night. Flea bites often have a characteristic central red spot. Bed bug bites may resemble mosquito bites; bed bugs, however, tend to bite multiple times in a straight line. This has been referred as the classic “breakfast, lunch, and dinner” pattern.
The most common treatment for bed bug bites is hydrocortisone cream to treat inflammation and the use of diphenhydramine (Benadryl) for allergic symptoms and itching. The cure, however, is to eradicate the bed bug from your shelter or camp; that’s a little harder to do. Some use chlorhexidine (Hibiclens) as a cleansing agent.
First, find their nests: Look at every seam in your mattress, linens, backpacks, and furniture. Bed bugs will also hide in joints in the wooden parts of headboards and baseboards. You will usually find bed bug “families” of various ages, along with brown fecal markings and, perhaps, even small amounts of dried blood.
Most people, once bed bugs are identified, will immediately want to treat with chemicals. Pesticides in the pyrethroid family and Malathion have been found to be effective. Propoxur, an insecticide, is highly toxic to bed bugs as well, but is not approved for indoor use in the U.S. due to health risks. If you use chemicals, be sure you cover all areas on the bed, including the frame and slats. Expect several treatments to be required to eliminate the infestation; repeat at least once 10 days after the initial treatment.
Those concerned with the over-use of pesticides or with lack of availability, as in a long term survival situation, could consider using natural predators, but this is highly impractical, as the bed bug predator list consists of everything else you don’t want in your shelter: ants, spiders, cockroaches, and mites.
One reasonable option is the use of bedding covers. These are impervious sheets or padding that, essentially, trap bed bugs inside your mattress until they starve. If they can’t reach you to get a meal of blood, they will eventually die out. This method (known as “encasing”) is the least risky, as it doesn’t involve the use of chemicals.
If you have electricity, make sure to place all bedding and clothes in a hot dryer for, say, an hour. Usually, washing clothes will not kill bed bugs by itself although hot, soapy water over 125 degrees Fahrenheit may work. This strategy, by the way, includes your backpack when you return from a trip out of town or an extended foraging patrol. Extreme cold is also considered an effective treatment. If you live far enough North, 4 or 5 days of temperatures approaching 0 degrees Fahrenheit should kill them.
If you have access to a working vacuum, use it on flooring and upholstery. A stiff brush is helpful to scrub mattress seams before vacuuming.
Natural remedies to treat bed bugs include dusting seams with diatomaceous earth; the bugs consume it and it tears up their insides, but it doesn’t kill the eggs. Many people swear by tea tree oil and rubbing alcohol as well. Here’s a time-honored herbal bedbug treatment:
• 1 Cup Water
• Lavender essential oil (10 drops)
• Rosemary essential oil (10 drops)
• Eucalyptus essential oil (10 drops)
• Clove bud essential oil (optional)
• Place in a fine mist spray bottle
• Shake well before using.
As bed bugs can live for months without a meal, it’s important to maintain long-term diligence in identifying these pests wherever you hang your hat when things go South. These bugs may not end your life, but they can certainly affect the quality of it.
Joe Alton, MD
If you want to know how to deal with medical issues in times of trouble, pick up a copy of our #1 Amazon bestseller The Survival Medicine Handbook, with over 250 5-star reviews!