Pest Paranoia

Last week, as I was making my bed, I noticed a small white fleck moving on my bed sheets. I immediately panicked, ran to my laptop and did a Google image search for “bed bugs”. The small white fleck looked nothing like a bed bug, and I didn’t need Google to tell me that. In fact, it wasn’t long before the mysterious little insect flew away from my bed. I’m pretty sure bed bugs don’t fly.

Still, I washed my sheets and did an obsessively thorough scan of my mattress. I thought about my experience and realized that the bed bug epidemic has given birth to a new disease: pest paranoia.

Slate.com columnist Eliza Barclay calls it “bed bug misdiagnosis”. She writes:

The pest management industry is one that would benefit handsomely from an epidemic of false alarms. Treating a one-room apartment typically costs hundreds of dollars; for a single-family house, the bill might reach several thousand dollars.

Barclay explains that she was a victim of “bed bug misdiagnosis” when a pest inspector mistook a black carpet beetle in her home for a bed bug. “I lay awake most of that night, waiting for a bedbug to bite, but it never happened,” she writes. Also commonly mistaken for bed bugs are: “household insects, bits of lint, sesame seeds, crumbs, or scabs.”

Lying awake at night has been one side effect of the bed bug panic. Other side effects include compulsively searching mattresses and avoiding retail stores, movie theaters and hotels at all costs. The old saying “Better safe than sorry” can apply here, and the bed bug problem isn’t getting any better. But are sleepless nights and business losses worth it?

The problem of bed bugs goes far beyond itchy bites. Public Health Officer Susan Jennings writes, “Mental health effects from bed bug infestations include anxiety, insomnia, or worsening of an existing mental health condition.” But how much of this anxiety and panic is happening even before a bed bug is found or properly identified?

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