Infestations May Trigger 'Bedbug Psychosis'

A bedbug infestation may trigger feelings of depression, paranoia, anxiety.

May 16, 2011, 5:40 PM

May 17, 2011— -- He spent months fighting bedbugs with sprays and fumigation, but the bedbug infestation at Lucas da Silva's house only got worse. At the peak of its severity, da Silva could flip over his mattress in the middle of the day, and bedbugs would appear everywhere, crawling around as if they owned the joint.

Exterminators were expensive and none could guarantee that the appleseed-size vermin would disappear forever, said da Silva.

In frenzied desperation, da Silva, 23, of Orlando, Fla., took his Brazilian grandmother's advice and turned to kerosene. She told her grandson that Brazilians use it to combat all sorts of vermin.

He doused his home. He covered bookcases, the upholstery, tables and chairs with the combustible hydrocarbon liquid.

But the kerosene offered only a week of relief until the bugs came back in droves.

After nearly two years of fighting the vermin, he and his family eventually threw away their mattresses and beds, and moved into a new home.

Still, even though da Silva now lives free of the parasites, the experience still haunts him.

"It's like a phobia," he said. "Sometimes I lay down at night and itch somewhere and get worried that I have bedbugs again, even though nothing is there."

Da Silva might be pleased to learn that his feelings are not that unusual, according to a new study. Researchers found that bedbug infestation, and often the media frenzy surrounding the vermin, may increase the risk of mental health problems and exacerbate pre-existing psychiatric conditions.

"Bedbugs, mice, rats roaches -- they've bothered human beings, and they have been around for many many years," Dr. Evan Rieder, a psychiatrist at New York University's Langone Medical Center and lead author of the study, told MedPage Today. "But there's something about the sanctity of the bedroom and the bed and the fact that bedbugs are attracted to warmth and attracted to blood, because that's how they feed, that really violates something that's really personal to the human experience."

Ten people, ranging in age from 21 to 75, participated in the study, but the researchers presented a detailed review of six of the 10 cases at the American Psychiatric Association meeting in Honolulu. After a bedbug infestation, some participants experienced anxiety, depression, controlled bipolar disorder and monosymptomatic delusional disorder in which one imagines that bugs are crawling all over the skin.

For other participants, it didn't take an actual infestation to trigger anxiety and symptoms of paranoia. Rieder said some of them exhibited tactile hallucinations. Even though they did not have a history of an infestation nor a history of psychosis, the participants were convinced that bedbugs were crawling on their skin. Rieder said the swirling media coverage surrounding the vermin may play a part in the paranoia that surrounds this condition.

"If you look at the media on a global basis, bedbugs are all over the place, and the incidence in the media, in newspapers, magazines, TV reports, has been going up steadily since the year 2001, so there may be some media-driven frenzy," Rieder told MedPage Today.

Bedbugs May Increase Risk of Mental Health Problems

Any doctor seeing patients with bedbug infestation and pre-existing psychoses "should be on alert," Rieder said. "These people can decompensate even if they've been medically stable for a significant period of time."

Researchers said it's unclear why a bedbug infestation threatens the mental health of some more than others, but they hope to research the topic further, as bedbugs are not going away.

"Most people are very upset when they call us," said Steve Nelson, a co-owner of Chemtech Exterminating Corp. in New York City. "They are on the phone, crying. It's very disconcerting -- a nightmare for most people."

Nelson said that he and other exterminators often act as stand-in psychologists, reassuring the customers that they will help them get through this mentally exhausting ordeal.

"People are ... taking their home and turning it upsidedown," said Nelson. "We feel bad, but we tell them we're there to help and we reassure them that we will get rid of the problem."

As for da Silva, he said he empathized and understood why bedbugs may wreak havoc on a person's psyche.

"You're living in a house where you're not at peace," said da Silva. "Then you barely sleep and you wake up and you're tired. That could definitely have a huge impact on anxiety and depression."

While da Silva didn't need psychiatric help to manage his bedbug storm, the experience is not over for him.

"It's always in the back of my mind," he said. "Even though they're gone, I worry that a friend might have them, and it'll just be brought right back to the house. All of a sudden, they're everywhere."

Additional reporting by MedPage Today's Kristina Fiore

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events