Can ivermectin help exterminate bed bugs? - study

A new peer-reviewed study by North Carolina State University analyzed the effects of anti-parasitic drugs ivermectin and fluralaner in fighting bed bugs.

 A bed bug, one of the most persistent "pest" animals to plague humanity. Can we find a way to stop them? (Illustrative) (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A bed bug, one of the most persistent "pest" animals to plague humanity. Can we find a way to stop them? (Illustrative)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Popular anti-parasitic drug ivermectin, once also falsely touted as a possible COVID-19 cure, may actually have another secret and game-changing use: Killing bed bugs, according to a recent study.

While ivermectin is not effective in curing the deadly coronavirus that has spread throughout the world since 2020, it may be able to help tackle another issue plaguing people worldwide.

The findings of this study were published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Parasite and Vector.

Ivermectin: Can it save us all? From bed bugs, not COVID-19

Ivermectin is used to treat or prevent parasites in animals, and is often referred to as a "horse dewormer." In fact, the drug can also be used to kill fleas and ticks on pets.

Ivermectin (credit: REUTERS)Ivermectin (credit: REUTERS)

Ivermectin also has use for humans as it can be used to treat parasitic worms, lice and other skin conditions in people. The formulations for animals are chemically distinct from those meant for humans. 

While its heavy involvement in the COVID-19 controversy has left a stain on the drug's reputation, ivermectin is in fact a very effective anti-parasitic treatment.

So can ivermectin help humanity tackle bed bugs?

What are bed bugs? Are they dangerous? How can we stop them?

Known by the scientific name of Cimex lectularius, bed bugs are one of the single worst "pest" animals the Earth has to offer, especially for humans.

Bed bugs are found worldwide, wherever people live. They are very small, sometimes just a single millimeter long, and are thus very hard to spot. But they can exist practically everywhere.

Bed bugs can be found in your bed at home, on train seats, in your office, on luxury cruises, in hospitals, on airplanes and more.

And not only that, but even if you don't feel them there, they might end up in your luggage, or in your linens or your clothes. They can be anywhere.

These small pests are parasitic, and humans are their main hosts. However, they don't live on the human body. Rather, they only come when it's time to eat, consuming blood by biting through the skin. 

This results in the development of very irritating bites that can be extremely itchy and visible. 

Luckily, unless you have an allergic reaction, it doesn't get worse than that, but it can still be extremely debilitating for one's daily life.

Bed bug bites can arguably be treated as there isn't a full consensus scientifically on whether these treatments actually work. But either way, that will only deal with existing bites and the symptoms, which themselves can go away in about one to two weeks. It will not get rid of the bed bugs. That is a far more difficult challenge that some end up finding impossible. 

In order to get rid of the parasites, it may be essential to painstakingly vacuum, scrape and seal all fabrics and furniture to prevent re-infestation. All clothes would need to be either washed in water that's at least 60°C or frozen at -20°C. 

For mattresses, one would need to steam them at a temperature of at least 60°C, and then heat up the entire room, or tent if that's where the infestation is, to at least 55°C. 

And even then, it may still not work.

Want to use pesticides? Good luck with that. Those are usually far less effective than non-chemical solutions, and there is considerable evidence that some bed bugs have begun resisting common insecticide solutions.

And with bedbug infestations rising since the 1990s, finding a way to get rid of them is extremely important.

And that is where ivermectin comes in.

How can ivermectin exterminate bed bugs?

The study by researchers from North Carolina State University took a look at ivermectin and another anti-parasitic drug, fluralaner, and whether they can kill bed bugs.

The study was done due to bed bugs being present in another seemingly random location: poultry farms. It is entirely unclear how bed bugs, who tend to only feed on humans, got there in the first place.

Considering that poultry farms are far less easily cleaned than a home, and because chemical solutions tend to not be so effective on bed bugs, a solution to kill them off is needed.

Admittedly, there was once a way to kill bed bugs in poultry farms: dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). However, this particular insecticide is illegal in the US and in many other countries worldwide, due in part to its impact on birds, which resulted in eggshells thinning and populations drastically declining.

But one method that the scientists at NC State wanted to try was known as xenointoxication. This is a method where the host is treated to kill the parasites, rather than infecting the environment to kill the parasites directly. Essentially, the parasites bite into the skin but rather than eating just regular blood, they'll end up eating the anti-parasitic drug.

Xenointoxication is widely used in humans and animals and has been used to fight mosquitos, ticks, mites and fleas. 

Ivermectin and fluralaner are both used through xenointoxication. So the researchers decided to test these two in chickens, which are currently hosting many of these bed bugs in the farms, if humans aren't available, to see if they could be used to kill bed bugs.

So what did the results say? Did they show how ivermectin may finally save us from bed bugs?

Unfortunately, no. But fluralaner might.

While ivermectin did result in the death of bed bugs a couple days after feeding, this was still ineffective, as the effect didn't last long.

There may be some reasons for this, however. For example, the chickens may just be very quickly metabolizing or clearing ivermectin from their bodies. This is supported by blood tests showing how ivermectin seemingly cleared out of the chickens very quickly. This is worth noting, since chickens, as is the case with all birds, have a far higher metabolic rate than humans.

Fluralaner, however, was far more effective and, if further research pans out, could be an effective way of battling bed bugs.

In other words, ivermectin likely cannot be used to fight bed bug infestations on poultry farms, but fluralaner can, especially if given by putting it in the chicken's drinking water.

And maybe, with further research along this avenue, we may finally have a way of defeating the scourge of bed bugs once and for all.