Believe it or not, bed bugs are an ancient problem. Bed bugs, lice and other parasitic insects thrived through the Dark Ages when hygiene was poor, people lived close together, and knowledge of why things happened was based more on superstition than fact.
After World War II, until 1972 when the use of the pesticide DDT was banned, bed bugs almost entirely disappeared, with remnants seen mostly in poorer countries. Today, unfortunately, bed bugs are making a comeback. Only knowledge of how to avoid and (failing that) combat them can prevent the bed bug’s bite in your home.
Bed Bug Basics
Bed bugs feed on blood. Some species of bed bugs target a particular mammal or bird. The one that dines on humans – Cimex lectularius – is a flat, reddish-brown, wingless insect about the size of an apple seed when it’s fully grown. As bed bugs eat, their bodies become rounder and darker, making it much easier to see them. Though since they are mainly nocturnal, wandering out at night when you’re either resting or asleep, you probably won’t.
Bed bugs may live a year without eating and a year and a half without breathing, Integrated Pest Management expert Stephen Tvedten notes. When living in ideal conditions (about 80 degrees, with a host to feed on and places to hide and sleep) a female may lay from 200 to 500 eggs in her lifetime, at a rate of 3 to 5 a day.
Upon hatching, which takes from one to three weeks, the nymphs (juvenile bed bugs) quickly follow the same life cycle. Once a nymph reaches adulthood, which may take a few weeks under ideal conditions or as long as a year if not, it then reproduces, starting the cycle again. Bed bugs can quickly grow in numbers if your place is suitable to their needs.
Bed bugs tend to bite in rows, a characteristic often said to be their “breakfast, lunch and dinner.” They feed every five to ten days when possible. The bites may not show up for several days, though, making it difficult to know exactly when you were exposed.
When you know bed bugs are in a room, you can generally bet they’re living within about 8 feet of a bed or resting place, unless the infestation is severe. They can sense your presence through carbon dioxide emissions – your breath literally gives you away.
No known diseases are linked to bed bugs, according to the CDC, but they’re not exactly harmless. On top of embarrassment and stress, scratching the bites can lead to infection and the bite itself may cause an allergic reaction.
Looking for Bed Bugs
You don’t have to be poor or have a dirty home to have bed bugs. Some of the nicest hotels are combating them, and no one is immune. Anywhere people rest or sleep is vulnerable, from hotels to dormitories, from trains to buses, and in bedrooms of the nicest homes imaginable. You may find them behind, in and under various places such as:
- Mattress seams
- Box springs
- Corners of drawers
- Baseboard trim
- Radios and other electronic items
Once bites appear, the in-a-line quality is an obvious sign that they’re from bed bugs. Unfortunately, you’ll never feel them when they’re biting. That’s because they first pinch the skin, attaining a good grip, then inject an anesthetic to dull the bite. Then they suck the blood, and they’ll hide again before you ever knew they were there.
To find evidence of bed bugs, look for:
- Husks: the exoskeleton a nymph sheds when it molts
- Engorged adults: When full of blood, a bed bug becomes visible and may be found hiding in the folds and corners of the sheets, mattress, and elsewhere around the bed.
- Blood spots: Bluntly, bed bugs leave fecal matter wherever they go, which appears as little circles of old blood.
- Smell: A sweet, musty scent accompanies bed bugs. According to Tvedten, frightened bed bugs leak something that smells like rotten raspberries. The more you have, the more obvious the odor. (In fact, special service dogs are sometimes used to smell out bed bugs.)
Preventing Bed Bugs
Prevention often proves easier than curing a problem. To ensure you avoid getting bed bugs, follow a few common-sense tips:
- Be cautious of purchasing used furniture. Examine the item to spot signs of bed bugs. Avoid used mattresses and box springs.
- Inspect your hotel room when traveling. Pull the bed away from the wall slightly, if possible, and look for bugs or blood. Look under the mattress, around the headboard, and in other likely areas near the bed. (Even when visiting friends or family, this may be a smart precaution.) Also, don’t let the covers touch the floor while you sleep.
- Avoid putting your bags on or near the bed in hotel rooms and other suspect sleeping quarters. Place them on a luggage rack instead. Better yet, keep your luggage in a garbage bag and only open it when you need to get into it.
- When returning home from traveling, unpack directly into the washer. Set the machine to use hot water. Follow with a hot dryer.
How to Kill Bed Bugs
If you do have bed bugs in your home, you’re not stuck with them. Eradicating bed bugs may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. You can hire a qualified pest control professional or attempt it on your own. A professional can super-heat your home to help kill off the bed bugs, or possibly apply certain pesticides that you don’t have access to. In most cases, a combination of cleaning, preventing spreading, and sparingly applying chemicals works best.
Bed bug control measures include:
- Reduce the clutter in your bedroom. The less clutter you have, the less places they have to hide.
- Vacuum the carpet daily, no matter what. Concentrate in particular on corners and along wall edges, using a nozzle. If the problem is bad enough, you may even consider removing the carpet to eliminate hiding spots. Also, remove the vacuum bag each time and seal it in a plastic bag for immediate disposal.
- Steam clean your carpet. Use a hot-water extraction or home steam cleaner with the water as hot as possible.
- Use a hair dryer or other heat source, Tvedten suggests, to treat small areas.
- Encase your pillows, mattress and box springs in plastic (taping the seams to ensure nothing can escape or enter) or buy special protective covers.
- Put bed bug guards under bed legs to prevent the bugs from climbing into bed with you.
- Wash walls, headboards, furniture and other furnishings using hot, soapy water. Add a bit of borax to create a mild insecticide. Alternatively, use rubbing alcohol.
- Seal gaps, holes and other hiding spots with caulk or expanding foam insulation.
- Wash all bedding in extremely hot water. Isolate other items, sealing them in a plastic bag, and place them in a hot area for several weeks. Freeze items, alternatively.
- Sprinkle borax or diatomaceous earth in corners and crannies where bed bugs hide: Under beds and dressers, behind baseboards and inside wall outlets, among other areas.
- Use pesticides as needed. Never apply pesticides directly to mattresses and avoid exposing children, pregnant women or disabled individuals to the chemicals. Consult a qualified pest control professional for best results.
Note: Residents of multi-family housing units must treat their units at the same time. If not, bed bugs may travel to the neighbors – and then come back when conditions improve.
Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense.