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Question: I am being bitten by microscopic bugs. It started two months ago in my home, but now they seem to be everywhere. I feel them bite in my home and at the office, day and night. They seem to find me wherever I am. It’s driving me crazy! Can you help? Dr. Cannon’s Answer: The problem you describe is very common in late winter. Months of indoor heating and hot showers leave us all with dry skin, which tends to be more susceptible to irritation. The many causes of skin discomfort fall into three broad categories: biting arthropods (insects and mites), environmental irritants, and medical conditions. My job as an entomologist is to try to establish whether insects are to blame for your discomfort. Fortunately, the list of insects biting people in winter is short: bed bugs, fleas, lice, and mites.

1. Biting arthropods

Once a symptom of filth or squalor, bed bug infestations nowadays are just a sign of bad luck. Bed bugs are excellent hitchhikers and can be picked up almost anywhere. They hide during the day so a bite is often the only indication of their presence. You could check your mattress, box spring, and bed linens for bed bugs, blood smears, or black spots that look like fly speck. However, I strongly recommend an inspection by an experienced pest management professional to confirm. You don’t want to gamble with bed bugs. (Bat bugs are quite similar to bed bugs in both appearance and behavior. They turn up if bats are or have been present in the home. Again, call a pest control professional for inspection and treatment.) Usually, fleas are easy to spot but can be overlooked in the early stages of an infestation. When in doubt, try the White Sock test. Pull on a pair of white knee socks and stroll around those areas of the home frequented by people or pets. Any fleas present will hop up onto the lower leg, where they are easy to spot against the white sock. DIY flea control products and thorough vacuuming may do the trick, but professional pest control will be quicker and more effective. Human lice are passed from one person to another and don’t typically go unnoticed for long. Head and pubic lice die quickly if separated from their host, whereas body lice can survive in piles of clothing and bedding. Regardless, human lice are a medical issue requiring diagnosis and treatment by a physician. Elimination can be expedited by laundering and vacuuming, but application of pesticides to the home is not needed. Several species of mites can bite people, but only two culprits are common in winter. Rodent mites feed on wild or pet rodents. They wander in search of other hosts when the rodent dies or absconds. Professional inspection and treatment will take care of them. (Bird mites resemble rodent mites in appearance, but rarely appear in winter. They tend to surface in spring when young birds fledge. Pet birds, however, may harbor such mites year round.) Scabies mites are a medical issue, much like lice. They burrow into the skin and tend to be associated with health care and child care facilities. Because they are extremely contagious, scabies must be confirmed and treated by a physician. Structural pesticide applications will not help.

2. Environmental irritants

Once insects have been ruled out, we need to consider alternative causes of skin discomfort. Environmental issues are sometimes to blame. Numerous physical and chemical irritants can affect the skin in much the same way as biting insects. Have there have been recent changes in your indoor environment, such as construction or renovation; painting; chemical treatment of furniture or clothing; new personal care products; or the like? Carefully consider every possibility, no matter how small. For example, a military officer once told me that a particular brand of dryer sheets was not permitted on base as it caused a high number of dermatitis complaints. If you need professional help in this area, contact an environmental consultant.

3. Medical causes

While not a medical professional, I know of a number of prescription drugs, OTC drugs, and medical conditions that can produce skin reactions. On this extensive list are such things as anemia, arthritis, cancer, depression, hypoglycemia, pregnancy, stress, analgesics, antibiotics, antidepressants, hormones, sedatives, and drugs for cardiovascular disease, convulsions, hypertension, thyroid conditions, and ulcers. All of these and more can cause dermal itching, stinging, burning, or tingling in some people. It is well worth your while to discuss these possibilities with your physician, especially if insects and environmental issues have been ruled out. As difficult as the situation is, you need to be patient and open minded. This is sometimes a difficult riddle to solve. It can take time, effort, and determination. But if you persist in investigating all of the potential causes mentioned above, you will resolve the problem. And if you’d like some help investigating the insect part of that equation, we at Plunkett’s are only too happy to help. Do you have a pest problem that you'd like to learn more about?  Ask Dr. Cannon your question by clicking here! For more information on the insects and other pests you have encountered this winter, contact Plunkett’s Pest Control today. Providing superior residential and commercial pest control services for Minneapolis, Lincoln and the Quad Cities as well as throughout our service area, Plunkett’s is ready to be your trusted exterminator.

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