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The Ultimate Guide to Dealing With Bed Bugs

While bed bugs are often associated with less-than-desirable accommodations, in recent years they’ve made an unfortunate comeback across the United States, becoming a more prevalent pest in people’s own homes. Pest management is now something that’s important to consider.

Bed Bug FAQs

  • Why do bed bugs bite?
  • What do bed bugs look like?
  • Where do bed bugs come from?
  • How do you check for bed bugs?
  • How do you get rid of bed bugs?
  • How can you avoid bringing bed bugs into your home?

Bed bugs have posed a domestic annoyance ever since the days of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. But the story of bed bugs goes back even further, to prehistoric times. Bats and birds were their earliest hosts, but eventually, humans became their unwilling prey.

Various Medieval accounts mention bed bugs around Europe, but they weren’t common to London until the 18th century. Bed bugs possibly arrived with imported lumber used to rebuild the city after the Great Fire of London. With the Industrial Revolution and the resulting population explosion of major cities, bed bugs continued to proliferate.

In the 20th century, the advent of affordable indoor electric heating made it possible for bed bugs to survive, grow, and breed year-round. Bed bugs also posed a serious health threat on US military bases during WWII. With the use of pesticides like DDT, bed bug populations were reduced.

Short-Lived Decline in Bed Bugs

In the 1950s, bed bug populations continued to decline, most likely from the continued use of chemical pesticides in a domestic context formulated to kill other pests like cockroaches. The invention of the vacuum cleaner and the simplification of furniture design further pushed the average home into a less accommodating habitat for bed bugs. Societal awareness also helped decrease the public nuisance of bed bugs.

But bed bugs have made a comeback in recent years. Some conjectures have attributed this resurgence to increased international travel to and from regions of the world where bed bug populations have not been managed. An increased market for second-hand furniture, a developing resistance to pesticides among bed bugs, and the eradication of other pests that prey on bedbugs may also have contributed to this resurgence. In cities like New York and Chicago, bed bugs have once again become a serious health concern.

Bed Bug FAQs

While bed bugs are not known to spread disease, they are a serious annoyance to humans. Their bites can cause itchiness and in extreme cases allergic reactions. The itching may lead to intense scratching, which in turn may lead to an infection of the skin.

Why Do Bed Bugs Bite?

Bed bugs bite because they feed on blood. Their minuscule mouths pierce the skin to inject the blood with painkillers and anticoagulants. This prevents the blood from clotting and obstructing their meal. Bed bugs are attracted to their potential hosts by the presence of carbon dioxide and warmth. They tend to feed on exposed areas of skin like the back, arms, and neck, but avoid areas like the back of the knees and armpits.

Around 20% of human sleepers will have no allergic reaction to bed bug bites, but some will have extreme allergic reactions. Bed bug bites usually result in red swelling without a visible red spot in the place where they fed, but if many bed bugs congregated to feed on one particular area of skin, red dots may be visible after the general red swelling subsides. Individual reactions vary, and some people may experience hives or a rash that produces a reddening of the skin.

The psychological damage of bed bug bites must also be considered, and in many cases, this will be the worst symptom of bed bug infestations. Anxiety, stress, and insomnia can result from frequent bites, and in some cases, the unwilling host might develop an obsessive belief that they are beset by parasites—a condition known as delusional parasitosis.

What Do Bed Bugs Look Like?

Bed bugs look similar to a number of other pests, such as fleas, ticks, booklice, carpet and spider beetles, and cockroach nymphs. Before investing time and money dealing with bed bugs, it’s important to verify that they actually are present in your bedding or furniture.

The two typical species of bed bugs are Cimex lectularius (the common bed bug) and its tropical cousin, Cimex hemipterus. An adult bed bug is ovular, reddish-brown or brown, and 5-7 mm long (roughly the size of an apple seed). Unfed bed bugs may appear flat, while bugs who have just fed on a blood meal may appear round like an oblong balloon. They may appear to be striped because of patterned hair growth. Bed bugs have two antennae, six legs, and a small set of vestigial wings — that is, non-functional wings that still exist from an earlier evolutionary iteration of the bed bug species.

Growth Stages of Bed Bugs

Bed bugs actually grow through six different stages. The first five stages are nymphal, and the immature bed bugs in this stage are typically lighter colored or even translucent. At each stage of their growth, they will molt (shed) their outer layer or exoskeleton until they reach bed bug adulthood.

Bed bug eggs are tiny — typically 1 mm long. These eggs are elongated and appear like grains of rice. Bed bugs will often lay eggs in the cracks of furniture or the seams of mattresses. Often, they become stuck to the surface and are difficult to shake off.

Where Do Bed Bugs Come From?

Bed bugs have been around for millions of years. At first, they fed on bats (they are related to bat bugs), then birds, and then all types of sleeping animals — including humans. Bed bugs have been present around the world, but one of the strongest contributing factors to their presence is the degree of hygiene present in the environment.

Bed bugs live anywhere they can feed. They have become a problem in overcrowded and poorly maintained areas like urban slums as well as in wealthy suburban areas. Keep in mind that a bed bug infestation is not directly caused by sanitation issues. A cluttered home will be more likely to see an infestation simply because the signs of bed bugs can be more easily missed, and the bed bugs have more places to hide.

Since the overall hygienic standards of American homes are reasonably high, bed bugs in these cases may come from second-hand furniture, guests, or homeowners who have slept in an infested location outside their home like a hotel. Bed bugs cannot fly, so they spread by hitching rides in clothing, backpacks, jackets, and suitcases.

How Do You Check for Bed Bugs?

Bed bug bites are among the easiest ways to detect the presence of bed bugs. Finding live or dead bed bugs at various stages of life is also a substantial indicator. Male and female bed bugs look nearly identical, so there is less chance of misidentifying the pest involved.

Mattresses with small reddish or rust-colored spots and bed sheets with blood stains may indicate places where bed bugs have been crushed. Dark spots near mattress or bedding seams may indicate bed bug excrement. Lastly, pale yellow molted skins may indicate that nymphs have molted there. There may also be a sweet musty odor that the bugs give off when threatened or crushed.

Some or all of these signs may indicate that bed bugs are present in your sleeping area. If you can catch these signs early on, you may have an easier time eradicating your bed bug problem.

Bed bugs usually live within 20 feet of their sleeping host, but they can spread to several rooms. Obvious places for them to live include mattresses and furniture, but they can also nestle in peeling wallpaper, loose carpet, clothing, bed frames, and even electrical outlets. These hiding places can make it hard for the average homeowner to fully implement their own pest control. At the very least, you can check the mattress and box springs of your bed if you are experiencing some pest issues at night.

How Do You Get Rid of Bed Bugs?

If you have determined that your home is experiencing a bed bug infestation, one of the first things you’ll want to do is reduce the amount of clutter in infested areas. Do not bring items from an infested room into other areas of your home, which would only spread their presence. Instead, throw away items you do not need, and as a courtesy to others, bag them up and seal them before you do.

For items that you do need, pack these things into sealable containers or bags. You will want to move these containers or sealed plastic bags to a different part of the home where they won’t be disturbed for 2-5 months, after which time any bed bugs inside will most likely have died. Where applicable, you can wash these stored materials (like clothes) once you remove them from their quarantine.

Move the bed at least six inches away from the walls. If you can afford it, throw away your bedding. While your extermination process might not coincide with the best time to buy a mattress, it might certainly be the most necessary time to reinvest. If you can’t buy a new mattress, vacuum the mattress, box spring, baseboards, and bed frame thoroughly.

Use a Mattress Protector

Enclose the mattress in a 6-sided bed bug mattress protector, which will starve any remaining bed bugs. These kinds of bed bug encasements prevent them from reaching and feeding on sleeping bodies. Make sure that new bedding materials do not touch the floor.

Bed bugs cannot survive extreme heat or cold. Washable materials, such as bedding and clothing, should be washed in very hot water (140 degrees) for half an hour, and then dried on high heat (above 104 degrees) for another half hour — or dry cleaned (which is done with chemicals). If you can’t wash or dry clean certain items, you can place them in a sealed container or bag and then leave them in a hot car or under the sun. Items that cannot be washed could also be placed in a freezer chest since bed bugs cannot be subjected to a temperature of zero degrees for more than eight hours. Items that cannot be subjected to heat treatments or cold temperatures can simply be stored for 5-8 months, which can starve the bed bugs.

Once you have decluttered your infested space, moved the bed away from the wall, and cleaned or stored potentially infested items, it’s time to clean and vacuum the general area. In fact, this is a good time to clean your entire home. Make sure to use specialized vacuum nozzles to clean the places pests might be hiding, such as crevices, cracks, and upholstered furniture.

Chemical Treatments to Eliminate Bed Bugs

If these efforts don’t eliminate bed bugs, you might want to try some chemical treatments. But keep in mind that a chemical bed bug treatment can pose other health risks, especially for families with children, so it’s always wise to seek advice from a professional.

Desiccant Dusts

Desiccant dusts are most commonly made from diatomaceous earth or silica powder. They are considered safe for indoor use and particularly effective around nooks and crannies (like electrical outlets and switches) where bed bugs might be inconveniently hiding. These dusts draw moisture out of the bed bugs which causes them to dehydrate.

Liquid or Aerosol Sprays

cleaning spray bottle

Products like these can also be used to eliminate bed bugs, and some of these insecticides will continue to kill bed bugs over time. Some sprays, called Pyrethrins, are derivatives of the chrysanthemum flower, which is lethal to bed bugs. The downsides to these insecticides are that sometimes bed bugs will develop a resistance to the sprays, and the sprays themselves cannot always get into hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. However, on the plus side, there are many sprays and chemicals of low toxicity that have been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for indoor use.

If you’ve tried cleaning, and over-the-counter insecticides, and you still can’t end the infestation, it might be time to engage the services of a professional pest control operator. These pest management professionals know how to eliminate bed bugs and prevent bed bugs from coming back.

How Can I Avoid Bringing Bed Bugs Into My Home?

The easiest way to avoid bed bugs is to inspect your luggage after traveling, check your sleeping bag after camping in the woods, and avoid purchasing second-hand furniture — especially when it comes to bedding. Investing in a new mattress and bed frame can pay off in the long run. Upholstered furniture is also a great place for bed bugs to hide, so be scrupulous about what type of furniture you take into your home and be mindful of where it originated.

Of course, it goes without saying that you should never accept dirty mattresses and box springs into your home. If there’s a chance that bed bugs are hiding, you’ll be happier sleeping on an air mattress or the couch until you can find a clean mattress and box springs.

Protect Your Mattress

Using a mattress protector is another great way to minimize the risk of bed bug infestation, as is keeping your bedding regularly clean by changing and washing it on a weekly basis. Maintain a reasonable level of personal hygiene because oils, fluids, dirt, and grime from our own bodies can soil a mattress and mask the signs of an infestation.

Keep the amount of clutter in your home to a minimum. Clean and vacuum your home regularly to eliminate any bed bugs who might have found their way into your living space — especially if you live in an apartment. While you can manage the cleanliness of your own living space, you can’t control what other people do, so stay diligent and inspect your mattresses and bed frames regularly.

Apartment-dwellers who share a laundering facility should be especially careful about the laundry room and their clothing. Keep clothing that belongs to you in separate plastic bags, or at least an isolated laundry bin. Fold your clothes inside your own apartment to avoid picking up potential bed bugs from your neighbor’s clothes.

Travel Safely

People traveling

If you travel, make an effort to stay at accommodations where you’re less likely to find bed bugs. Major hotel chains have a reputation to protect. They will tend to keep their rooms clean and quickly isolate any bed bug infestation that appears. When traveling, no matter where you stay, avoid leaving clothes on the floor or on your bed. Stowing your suitcase on a luggage rack can be a low-cost and effective form of pest control. Shower regularly and wash all your clothes when you come home.

The Best Way to Deal With Bed Bugs

Bed bugs are not limited to impoverished, over-crowded areas. They spread easily and can exist anywhere. With the increased amount of global travel, this means that any area can be impacted by the presence of bed bugs. Everyone should take bed bugs seriously, especially if they have exposed their living space to potential risks, such as taking in used furniture, clothes, bedding, or carpets. While bed bugs might not transmit disease like some pests, they can pose a serious nuisance and for some individuals even trigger an adverse allergic reaction or psychosomatic stress and insomnia.

Having a clean home doesn’t guarantee the prevention of a bed bug infestation, but cleanliness can help you notice signs of bed bug activity. A cluttered home gives the little critters more places to hide and makes bed bug control more difficult. Fortunately, bed bugs cannot survive extreme heat, cold, or even live without a ready supply of blood from prey. Cleaning, vacuuming, and reducing clutter are perhaps some of the easiest and most direct steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of a bed bug infestation.

Don’t Ignore the Signs

If you do find that you are experiencing bed bug bites or you see evidence of bed bugs, such as eggs, skins, actual bed bugs, droppings, or stains, you should act quickly. Eliminate junk, reduce clutter, and quarantine items that cannot be washed or exposed to extreme temperatures. Eliminate your bedding, and if you can’t, vacuum it thoroughly, enclose the mattress and box spring in mattress encasements, and clean the bedding by subjecting it to extreme cold or heat.

If these steps still don’t work, some people find success using chemical or desiccant solutions to kill the bugs. If these chemical solutions still don’t work, you may want to consider engaging the services of an experienced pest control operator who can help eliminate your bed bug infestation.