Cockroaches are some of the most common and reviled pests you can find in your home. These insects are common in residential areas, especially in large cities. They’re attracted to food and moisture, so they are common invaders in kitchens and bathrooms.
While everybody can agree that cockroaches are disgusting – are they actually dangerous?
The answer is yes, they can be dangerous especially to those with certain pre-existing conditions.
Let’s dive into all the potential health risks of a cockroach infestation. After all, there’s a reason that cockroach infestations violate health codes for residences and restaurants.
First, we’ll quickly cover the two cockroaches most common in the United States.
Types of Cockroach
Cockroaches are not a single species, but a whole order of insects. Many species of cockroach never invade homes at all. However, there are a few common types that infest homes most frequently in America.
German Cockroaches (Blattella germanica)
German cockroaches have a pale brown body and two distinctive brown stripes behind the head. They are much smaller than their American counterparts – only about a half-inch long. They also have a flatter shape to their body – like a stretched-out football.
American Cockroaches (Periplaneta americana)
These are the classic New York City cockroach. They are much larger than the German variety at around 1.5 inches long. They are reddish-brown in color and have a light-colored band around their head. So, they are almost the inverse of the German roaches as far as their coloration on the head.
Regardless of the type of cockroach you’re seeing, they are all attracted to the same things and can cause many of the same health issues. So the most important thing is identifying that you have cockroaches instead of another type of pest, which is quite easy – roaches are pretty distinctive.
Health Issues Associated with Cockroaches
The danger with cockroaches doesn’t lie in any kind of bite or sting – roaches can do neither, so they won’t hurt you immediately. The real danger with cockroaches is that they are attracted to unsanitary conditions and they make those conditions even more unsanitary when they show up.
This is the real reason why health inspectors come down so hard on properties with a cockroach infestation. Some of the health risks of a cockroach infestation include asthma/allergens and the potential to spread pathogens.
Cockroaches and Asthma
Cockroaches produce a lot of allergens that are easily disturbed by regular activity in the home and can also accumulate in bedding, clothing, and upholstery. The source of these allergens is usually shed body parts or cockroach feces.
As if that wasn’t disgusting enough on its own, these allergens are also major asthma triggers. The larger the infestation, the worse the triggers.
The relationship between cockroach allergens and asthma triggers has been well-researched. The National Academy of Medicine reviewed the research on cockroach allergens and asthma in their report on asthma exacerbation from indoor environmental exposures.
They found that cockroach infestations are so prevalent in inner-city communities that asthma rates are substantially higher (though this is combined with other factors).
They also concluded that the cockroaches need not be present for allergens to become a problem – residual allergens from prior or undiscovered infestations can also exacerbate asthma in sensitive individuals.
Cockroaches and Pathogens
Because cockroaches love filth and decay, they can pick up a lot of different pathogens. Research has found that cockroaches can act as reservoirs for a huge array of disease-causing organisms, including E. coli, several parasitic worms, and Salmonella.
It’s important to understand what we mean by a “reservoir for a pathogen”. This is just a fancy word that means that the bacteria lives and breeds there, regardless of whether the pathogen is actively infecting or being transmitted by the host.
As far as cockroaches go, it’s not well-understood whether cockroaches actively transmit diseases directly to humans. There are too many competing factors in homes infested with lots of cockroaches.
However, reservoirs are still an important part of disease transmission. By giving the pathogens a place to set up shop and multiply, the cockroaches can spread those pathogens to various surfaces in your home that you and your food will be touching regularly. Yuck!
Cockroaches and the Ear Canal
Perhaps the most frightening health issue caused by cockroaches is their tendency to crawl into people’s ears while sleeping.
This sounds like some science fiction horror story, but it does happen if the cockroach is small enough (and most German Cockroaches are)! Cockroaches love cramped, damp spaces, so ears seem like a perfect hiding place to them.
Cockroaches in the ear can cause a lot of trouble. One woman had a cockroach stuck in her ear for a full nine days before doctors were able to remove it!
To add to the terror, her doctor told her that he has to clear an insect from a person’s ear about once a month. So while this doesn’t happen every day, it does happen often enough to be a cause of concern.
Not a Pest to Take Lightly
The only good thing about cockroaches is that they do not bite or sting. They don’t pose an immediate threat the way that other insects like wasps or fire ants do.
However, the health risks of cockroaches are very serious and aren’t yet fully understood. Once you have a cockroach infestation, it can take a long time to get rid of cockroaches. It may take weeks or months of treatments to fully eliminate an infestation.
Clearing a cockroach infestation is the best way (really the only way) to deal with these risks and keep you and your family healthy and happy in your home.