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Bedbugs: They're On The Increase and They Want to Feed on You! What You Can Do About Bed Bugs!

closeup of a beg bugBedbugs, those disgusting bugs that scurry out of a mattress or cracks in the wall to suck human blood in the early morning, are in the news again, as they are making a resurgence.  Home infestations have skyrocketed. The common bed bug (Latin name, Cimex lectularius) is a wingless, reddish-brown, blood-sucking human-parasitic insect that grows up to 1/4 inch (7 mm) in length and has a lifespan from several months to  more than 1 year. Bed bugs hide in cracks and crevices in beds, inside mattresses and box springs, wooden furniture, floors, cracks between floorboards, in walls, even behind wall outlets during the daytime. They emerge at night to feed on their preferred host, you and your family! According to Sanitarian Chuck Fisher in this TV interview, "The bed bugs have a tendency to climb the walls, move across the ceilings and drop on you!".

Bed bugs are found worldwide. Infestations are growing more common in the developing world, especially in unsanitary living conditions and severe crowding, but in the few years starting in 2001, even in "nice" hotels and airlines. In North America and Western Europe, strong pesticides, like DDT (now banned) made bed bug infestations rare during the second half of the 20th century. The National Pest Management Association reports a 71% increase in calls for bed bug infestations since 2001.


What are Bed Bugs?bedbug getting ready to feed on a human hand

As mentioned at the outset, the common bedbug is a small (about the size of an apple seed), reddish-brown, flattened bug that looks a bit like a beetle that exclusively feeds on blood of warm-blooded animals, particularly humans, chickens and bats.

Where do bed bugs live?

They are found in al parts of the world, but hide in cracks, crevices, seams of mattresses, cracks between floorboards, anywhere they can, until the early hours of the morning, when their victims are sound asleep.  They then crawl out to feed.

How do bedbugs feed?bedbug feeding on a human

 Bedbugs are generally most active just before dawn. Their peak feeding period is about an hour before sunrise. They do feed at other times, too.

If all of this isn't enough to give you insomnia, consider this: they often climb the walls up to the ceiling and then jump down on their human victims, when they feel the warmth of your body and the presence of carbon dioxide rising up.

The bedbug pierces the skin of its host (you) with two hollow tubes. With one tube it injects its saliva, which contains anticoagulants and anesthetics, while with the other it withdraws the blood of its host. After feeding for about five minutes, the bug crawls back to its hiding place. Normally, the victim won't feel the bites until minutes or hours later, as the skin reacts to the injected agents. The first sign of a bite usually comes from the desire to scratch the bite site.

Although bedbugs can live for a year or as much as eighteen months without feeding, they typically seek blood every five to ten days. Bedbugs that go dormant for lack of food often live longer than a year, well-fed specimens typically live six to nine months. Low infestations may be difficult to detect, and it is not unusual for the victim not to even realize they have bedbugs early on.

Are bedbugs harmful?

Here, at least, is some good news. Although bed bugs could theoretically act as a disease carriers (as is actually the case with body lice and fleas) which transmit trench fever commonly among homeless persons ), bed bugs have never been shown to transmit disease. Hepatitis B viral DNA can be detected in bed bugs up to 6 weeks after they feed on infected blood, but no transmission of hepatitis B has been found. There is currently no scientific evidence that these blood-sucking insects spread diseases such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).  This means, that while the bugs are disgusting, and may produce allergic reactions in some people, they are no considered to be threatening from a medical perspective. 

JAMA tells us to treat the symptoms of the bites using over-the-counter topical antihistamines or topical corticosteroids and topical, oral, or intravenous antibiotics may be required when secondary bacterial infections occur.

UPDATE: In late 2014, the department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, and researchers at the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Peru conducted a series of laboratory experiments that demonstrated bi-directional transmission of T. cruzi between mice and bed bugs. The study shows that bed bugs can transmit a parasite that causes Chagas Disease. Chagas disease is one of the most prevalent and deadly diseases in the Americas. And this could make the bed bug may be just as dangerous as its cousin, the triatomine, or “kissing” bug

The triatomine bugs, which also suck human blood, have long been recognized as vectors of Chagas disease, which affects 6 to 8 million worldwide, mostly in Latin America. A handful of cases have been reported in California and Arizona.The disease kills about 50,000 a year worldwide. The insects infect people not through their bite but feces, which they deposit on their sleeping host, often around the face, after feeding.

The kissing bugs are five times as big as a bed bug, but aside from this, there are many similarities. The researchers say they have established that Bed Bugs theoretically can transmit Chagas Disease. But this has not yet been seen in practice.

How to recognize symptoms of bedbug bitesbed bugs

Since bedbugs inject an anesthetic so you won't feel them bite, you generally will only notice their bites after they have gone back into hiding.  The bedbug bites usually affect only the surface of your skin, leaving a small itchy red raised mark. Sometimes the bites appear in a line or cluster, when the bedbug feeds repeatedly.

You might find the lesions in a linear or clustered fashion, indicative of repeated feedings by a single bedbug.  Patterns of bites in a row or a cluster are typical as they may be disturbed while feeding. Bites may be found in a variety of places on the body.

People who are allergic to the bites may see a reaction in their skin, like larger, itchy bite marks (as big as 6 to 8 inches across - 20 cm), blisters, sometimes filled with pus and other marks of an allergic reaction, like hives.

See this page on the Mayo Clinic website for photos of actual bites.

Identifying bedbugsbedbugs

The common bed bug, Cimex lectularius, is the species most adapted to living with humans. Mankind has been bedding down with bedbugs since ancient times, hence the expressions "Sleep Tight and Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite".  Other bed bug species feed on bats and birds, especially chickens. The bed bug is wingless, reddish-brown, flattened shaped insect that grows up to 1/4 inch (7 mm) in length. They are sometimes mistaken for ticks or cockroaches. Bed bugs can move rapidly over floors, walls, ceilings and other surfaces (apparently, they have a hard time crawling up smooth metal surfaces, though) 

Its lifespan is several months to more than 1 year. Newly hatched nymphs are translucent, lighter in color and become browner as they molt and reach maturity.

Biology of bedbugs

Female bed bugs lay their eggs in secluded areas. They deposit 1, 2 or more eggs per day. The eggs are tiny, whitish, and difficult to see on most surfaces without magnification (individual eggs are about the size of a pinhead). When first laid, the eggs are sticky, causing them to adhere to surfaces. Newly hatched nymphs are pale tan-colored and are no bigger than a pinhead. The immature nymphs resemble the adults, but are smaller and lighter in color.  As they grow, they molt and shed their skin, up to five times before reaching maturity.

A blood meal is needed between each successive molt. Under favorable temperatures (70-80°F- 21 - 25 C), the bugs can reach adulthood in as little as a month, producing three or more generations per year. Cooler temperatures or limited access to victims slows their development time. Bedbugs are perversely resilient. Nymphs can survive months without feeding and the adults live for more than a year. Leaving premises unoccupied rarely eradicates an infestation. And although C. lectularius prefers feeding on humans, it will also bite other warm-blooded animals, including dogs, cats, birds, chickens and rodents.

Diseases carries or spread by bed bugs

Here, at least, there is some good news.  While bedbugs are disgusting and the cause of insomnia in anyone who has

How does a house become infested?

The bedbugs usually travel in on luggage and other articles carries from an infested area, most commonly a hotel in a developing country, but more frequently, a cheap hotel in the U.S. or Europe and sometimes even very expensive hotels.

It ought to be obvious that you  should never take a used mattress, box springs or upholstered furniture from the side of the road, or even buy a used mattress or boxsprings.

Take extreme care in inspecting any used furniture you consider purchasing.

Bedbugs can also enter your house from the outside through cracks and other openings, especially if birds, bats or rodents are nesting nearby.

Detecting bedbugs

Bed bugs infest only a small proportion of residences, but they should be suspected if residents complain of bites that occurred while sleeping. The bedroom and other sleeping areas should be carefully examined for bed bugs and signs of bed bug activity. Look under wallpaper, behind picture frames, and inside cracks and crevices near beds. Carefully inspect the bed frame, undersides of windows, door casings, and loose moldings. Folds and creases in the bed linens, and seams and tufts of mattresses and box springs, in particular, may harbor bed bugs or their eggs. They may also be found within pleats of curtains, beneath loose areas of wallpaper near the bed, in corners of desks and dressers, within spaces of wicker furniture, behind cove molding, and in laundry or other items on the floor or around the room. Sometimes, characteristic dark brown or reddish fecal spots of bed bugs are apparent on the bed linens, mattress or walls near the bed. A peculiar coriander-like odor may be detected in some heavily infested residences. Adhesive-based traps used for sampling insects or rodents are not particularly effective for trapping bed bugs.

See this University of Kentucky page for photos of the stains bedbugs leave on mattresses.

One of the newest techniques, and perhaps the most effective, is the use of dogs trained to smell the bedbugs.  An article in the the NY Daily News and in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, dated January 11, 2010, Page D1, reports that Quest K9 Detectives is training beagles to find bedbug infestations.  At their high Springs training facility (called J & K K9 Academy) they train beagles to be able to inspect up to 120 hotel rooms per day. Trained beagles day inspect 20 fasters than humans, and more accurately and thoroughly.

There are a number of firms popping up around the country offering the services of bed bug sniffing dogs, such as Isotech, a pest control company in Covina, Calif., which has 3 dogs certified by NESDCA to hunt down bed bugs and their eggs at hotels and other locations. National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association (NESDCA) is the primary organization that certifies dogs and teams.

Controlling bedbugs

Pesticides that had been effective against bedbugs (notably, DDT) have been banned, because they were too dangerous for use around humans. The most effective safe and legal remaining methods use heat. And while, we will point out some effective methods for small items, once bedbugs are in your house, you need to call a professional exterminator ensure they are all removed or destroyed.. If you are living in an apartment, condo, or other connected living, the pest control company should inspect all adjacent units. 

Heat treatments

What gets treated:

Bedding, clothing, toys, shoes, towels, sheets, blankets, pillows, pillowcases

How to treat:

Heat works best, and it can be apply wet or dry:

Both methods kill all bed bug life stages, but depend upon the ability of the heat to penetrate evenly to all parts of the materials.

 Items that can not be laundered:

Items which do not fit or otherwise cannot be put in a washer or dryer can sometimes be sterilized by wrapping in plastic and placing them outdoors in a hot, very open sunny location, a hot attic or a hot closed vehicle  for at least a day or two. Don't over pack the bags, so the heat can penetrate to all areas.

You may want to use a remote wireless BBQ grill thermometer, with the probe left the the middle of the item, to ensure that the temperatures reach and hold at least 120 to 130 F for a few hours.

 Whole house heat treatment:

Some treatment companies have reported that using industrial heaters to heat the entire interior of a house to 140 F results in almost immediate death of the bed bugs.  Of course, team members must go inside the house with thermal problems and ensure that there are no cold spots where bed bugs could hide out the treatment process.

Use of cold

Bed bugs are also killed by cold temperatures (below freezing - 32°F / 0 C). If you use freezing, it will take longer; the cold must be maintained for several days to be effective.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

IPM emphasizes simple, inexpensive practices to prevent infestations without the use of pesticides that harm to people and the environment. IPM focuses on eliminating the root cause of pests by eliminating or reducing their access to food, water and hiding places.

Cornell has a factsheet: "Best Management Practices for Controlling Bed Bugs; An Integrated Pest Management Approach"

Ineffective methods

House cleaning, such as vacuuming floors, wiping surfaces, rarely is successful as you cannot reach the places where bed bugs hide.

Consumer pesticides are ineffective.  In fact, many of the professional insecticides that even work on cockroaches, are ineffective on bedbugs.  The really effective ones (like DDT) have been banned by the EPA (for the obvious reasons of their toxicity to humans and the environment)

For this reason, it may be more practical to throw out infested items, especially mattresses, boxsprings and bulky items like  upholstered furniture.

Methods to prevent bedbug infestations

Number on the list of means to prevent a bedbug infestation is to avoid traveling to undeveloped countries, and to avoid staying in hotels.  Studies claim that bedbugs are more prevalent in cheap (less than $50 per night) hotels and motels) a fact that may make even Clark Howard consider upgrading to better hotels. According to ABC news, University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD, aka "Dr. Germ," says "I did a study about seven years that found if you paid more than $50 a night, there was a much greater chance that the room was regularly disinfected. Rooms under $50 weren't."

In any hotel:

At home:


 How to select a bed bug pest control /  treatment company

There are more that 18,000 pest management firms in the United States. Here's how to find the best company in your area:

Interviewing the Pest Control Companies

  1.  Ask companies if they are members of recognized national, state, and local pest control associations. Membership in these associations usually requires review of their methods and adherence to ethical business practices. Some good associations to look for include:
  2. Ask the companies whether they use integrated pest management (IPM) to treat bed bug infestations. Look for some (or all) of these procedures:
    •  Use of a multidisciplinary approach beyond pesticides such as: vacuuming, cleaning, steaming, using mattress encasements instead of treating beds with pesticides, heat or Cryonite treatments, and/or fumigation.
    •  Insist on inspecting before quoting a final price.
    •  Price jobs according to findings and not just a flat fee.
    •  Educate you on bed bugs, the company’s inspection findings, what they will be doing, and prevention.
    •  Provide a written inspection report and a strategy for services rendered.
    •  Provide a thorough follow up program that is not based upon a minimum number of visits but rather is based upon the current status of the bed bug activity. Follow ups should continue until control or elimination is achieved.
    •  Inquire if children or pets are present and adjust their treatment protocol and use of pesticides accordingly.
    •  Have a well-defined methodology for determining when an infestation has been eliminated.
    •  Work with property managers to notify adjacent apartments about the problem and recommend including surrounding units for inspections and treatments.

Things for you to do to ensure that the treatments are effective:

Additional Resources: To Make Finding Your Way Easier

As you have probably gathered, selecting an appropriate pest management firm that is capable of effectively treating for bed bugs can be difficult.


Summary

Bedbugs are a persistent, difficult to eradicate pest that feed on humans, but do not spread any known diseases. Eradication is usually difficult and expensive ($10,000 to $50,000 for a house).  Prevention by inspecting any hotel room in which you stay and not buying used beds and mattresses is the best defense.

Top tips:

  1. Keep luggage closed and inspect it carefully before you take it home. Bedbugs hitchhikers in luggage and clothing, frequently on tourists from other nations, military personnel returning from the Middle East, and business travelers traveling less developed nations. Check this page for tips specific to staying in hotels and motels.
  2. Bed bugs are very tough; they can live up to a year between meals and cold does not bother them unless it is very cold (well below freezing) and sustained
  3. Don't  believe scan product advertisements; at present, there are no proven bed bug repellent products.
  4. Bed bugs hide for all but a couple of hours per day.  They prefer places where they won't be disturbed, like cracks in the floor and wall. and the mattress, box spring, and bed frame.
  5. When you travel, use large, white, plastic trash bags with draw-string closures for your clothes and to enclose your luggage while it is in the hotel room. Put your luggage inside the bag and keep it closed when you are not actively using it. Remember, expensive hotels can have bedbug infestations just as easily as cheap hotels.
  6. Anyone can bring bedbugs with them to their home. And you may not discover the have a problem for weeks to months.
  7. Use High Quality mattress encasements (available here, click on allergy bedding on the left in the new page), to prevent mattresses from becoming infested.
  8. Bed bug bites usually look like  a raised reddened bump on the skin and are usually often itchy.
  9. And one last thing to reassure you: as disgusting as they are, bed bugs are not known to transmit diseases

Latest news


Bed Bug News by geographic area

United States

North Carolina

Virginia

Charlottesville, VA - News story about bed bugs in Charlottesville hotels and motels

 


Links to more information and references

  1. Information about bed bugs from Orkin pest control
  2. University of Kentucky Department of Agriculture -Bed bugs,
  3. San Francisco Examiner - State to state, bed bugs are crawling and phone lines are jumping outta control
  4. CDC, Center for Disease Control: Bed Bug Infestations in an Urban Environment
  5. CNN.com September 29, 2006
  6. ABC News: What's Hiding in Your Hotel Room?
  7. Fox News - EPA Hosts Summit on Growing Bedbug Nightmare, April 14, 2009
  8. Chicago Tribune - They're back! At bedbug conference, EPA seeks ways to stop biggest outbreak since WWII, April 14, 2009
  9. MedicineNet.com: Germs are Everywhere -- Really
  10. Reader's Digest
  11. CBC (canada) News - N.B. pest control companies bitten by bedbug resurgence
  12. Bedbugs: What do bed bugs look like? Medicine.net
  13. How to Manage Pests  - Pests of Homes, Structures, People, and Pets - Bed Bugs - University of California
  14. Decision chart for bug infestations from Harvard U.
  15. JAMA - Journal of the American Medical Association, April 2009
  16. Journal of Environmental Health, May 2008
  17. NY City Dept of Health: Bed Bug Fact Sheet,
    Download the PDF version of this fact sheet. [Español]
    Information on how to prevent bed bugs in hotels(PDF)

 

This page was updated on 2-May-2016