Here's What Experts Say About That Rumor You Can Get Bed Bugs From Library Books

I have some unfortunate news, book nerds. It turns out that you can get bed bugs from library books. Curling up with a book hasn't been this frightening since the first time you read The Shining. But don't fret. I've got some tips you can use to avoid bringing bed bugs into your home through your library checkouts.

Most people have heard the old saying, Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite, but what is a bed bug, exactly? Bed bugs are tiny parasites that thrive in warm climates with places to hide, like the inside of your home. Your bed provides the insects with lots of nooks and crannies to move around in, and you offer up their dinner — human blood — every time you go to sleep.

Some people have bed bug allergies, but it turns out that those tiny terrors can actually exacerbate existing sinus woes. Bed bug feces contains histamines: chemicals that tell your immune system to root out a threat by triggering the sneezing, runny nose, and itchy, watery eyes that you get whenever you have an allergic reaction. Histamines are also responsible for asthma attacks, which gave researchers at North Carolina State University pause when they learned that bed bug-infested homes had histamine levels of up to 20 times more than non-infested homes. There's no real indication that people who have or have had bed beg trouble are in danger, but the researchers note that "the implications of being exposed to chronic airborne histamine are unclear."

How much of a problem are bed bugs in library books, really? I contacted Ask an Entomologist to find out whether readers should worry about picking up a bed bug infestation from the books they bring home from the library. Entomologists Joanie Mars and Joe Ballenger delivered the somewhat disconcerting news that "[b]ed bugs can live about 5 months without food . . . in a book." Not to worry, though. Mars and Ballenger assure me that, even though "bed bug infestations happen, [they] don't worry about it when at a library."

Similarly, urban entomology expert Dr. Jody Green says that "books infested with bed bugs or even cockroaches are [often] so badly soiled and damaged [that] they cannot go back out in circulation," so the books that would put library patrons at risk of bringing bed bugs into their homes are removed from the collection as soon as they are returned. She adds that, in her opinion, "the library carries the greatest risk because books and items get returned from all sorts of residences and situations," and bed bugs can infest the building itself, moving from books into furniture.

Thankfully, libraries have myriad resources to help them deal with this issue. The Public Library Association has made a webinar, Don't Let the Bed Bugs Bite: Prevention and Treatment in Public Libraries, available on-demand to library staff. Proper quarantine procedure for library items involves placing damaged items in sealed Ziploc bags and/or airtight bins, and heating or chilling the items to kill bed bugs and their eggs. It's worthwhile to note, however, that extreme temperatures will not remove histamine-rich, bed bug feces, so you may still want to educate yourself on how to spot bed bug damage in library books, via this .PDF file.

If you believe you have a bed bug problem, call your library to ask about how and when you should plan to return your books and other items. Some institutions may ask you to seal the items in airtight bags yourself and return them as normal, while others may wish to coordinate a face-to-face pickup, so that the items may be evaluated and quarantined A.S.A.P. Remember: even though it may be embarrassing to admit to another person that you have a bug problem in your home, being proactive helps keep your library clear of pests.