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Dear Sirs:

Do spiders bite people on a regular basis? In my short time on planet Earth, I must have heard women complain about "spider bites" 400 or 450 times. Now that I am married and actually use critical thinking when listening to women (as opposed to "uh-huh, yeah, that's too bad, can you take your shirt off..."), the spider-bite story seems a little far-fetched. Why would a spider crawl into someone's bed and bite them on the legs and arms repeatedly? A flea? Sure. A mosquito? You bet. But a spider? It just doesn't add up. Can you and your crack research team please explore this mystery for me?

-- Joe in El Cajon

That's "cracked" research team, Joe. But don't worry, we can handle this bug stuff. Actually, we're more intrigued by your attraction to itchy women, but I guess we can't pursue that here.

First of all, you're right about spiders. They bite humans only rarely and defensively and they bite only once. Spiders creep most people out, but with a few notable exceptions, they're harmless. All spiders have venom and can bite. That's how they catch their prey (bugs). But most spiders can't break human skin or sink their tiny fangs very far into it. Spider bites can raise an itchy bump; but if your old girlfriends were complaining about continual rashes of welts caused by spiders, then they must have been repeatedly harassing black widows or something. Spiders need a good PR firm; they eat tons of bugs and do much more good than harm.

So, what's going on? Our guess is bedbugs. Maybe fleas, but more likely bedbugs, which are harder to find and are most active at night. Of course, bedbugs are much less dramatic and romantic than spiders. Who's going to greet Mr. Dream Date at the door wailing about her bedbug bites when she can play the innocent victim of an ugly, nasty old spider?

Bedbugs (Cimex lectularis, most commonly) are snuggly, wingless, speedy, hard-shelled little bits, about a quarter-inch long, that love to live where warm-blooded animals sleep. Their only food is those animals' blood. Beds and bedding, carpets, and clothes are some of their favorite places to kick back for a day or two between meals. (Adults can actually survive for a couple of months without food.) They do their blood-sucking at night, will bite repeatedly, and do inject saliva into the host to keep the blood flowing. Our bumpy, itchy skin reaction is to this juice.

Bedbugs can travel from room to room (or apartment to apartment) on their own, but more commonly they're brought in via yard-sale (or street-abandoned) furniture and clothes. Once they've arrived, they aren't necessarily a sign of bad housekeeping. But getting rid of them involves a massive, tactical disinfectant assault on all potentially infested surfaces. It's probably easier to abandon everything you own and move. Or call an exterminator. So, Joe, we are pleased you found someone bugless who will love you forever.

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