Do cockroaches carry contagion?

Originally Published: June 8, 2001
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Dear Alice,

I need to know if roaches carry disease or pose any health risk. As a college student forced to live in dorms, encounters with these creatures occur on a daily basis. Am I at risk?

Thanks, Bummed about bugs

Dear Bummed about bugs,

You have good reason to be concerned when you hear the pitter-patter of little cucaracha feet in your residence hall. Not only do cockroaches contaminate food by leaving droppings and bacteria that can cause food poisoning, they also have been recently identified as a major contributor to allergies, asthma, and other breathing problems.

According to research published in a 1997 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, "roach dust" — shed body parts and droppings that cockroaches leave behind — is considered a major trigger for respiratory problems. While cockroaches do not "cause" people to have asthma or allergies, exposure to roach dust can produce strong attacks in those who are prone to such respiratory ailments.

Once cockroaches were thought to be a sign of poor housekeeping and slovenly living. Now public health officials acknowledge that even the most fastidious housekeepers may have a run-in with roaches, especially if they live in warmer climates, large cities, or older buildings.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) web site is a good place to take Intro to Roaches 101. It sounds as though the folks managing your residential facilities may also need a brush-up course. Approach your resident advisor (RA) with your concerns about cockroaches and the health problems that they can trigger. S/he should be able to tell you (or find out) how the college is currently addressing the roach problem, and where you can go to make yourself heard to the administration.

While you're waiting for your school, roommates, and/or Mother Nature to clean up their acts, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences offers the following tips for reducing roach-related asthma and allergies in the space over which you have control:

  • Keep your living areas, especially bedrooms, clutter-free of food crumbs or leftovers.
  • Avoid leaving uncovered food out on kitchen tables or counters.
  • Clamp down on leaky faucets and drains because cockroaches love dark, wet places.
  • Never store garbage or other enticing cockroach treats (e.g., dry pet food, old newspapers) under the sink where it can get damp — instead, place it in a container that can be closed shut with a lid.
  • Use "roach motels," bait traps, and other environmentally friendly poisons to kill the lil' buggers.

Cockroaches are a bummer, but you're bigger and brainier. With a little information and perseverance, you can get the roaches evicted from your residence hall. Good luck!

Alice