Just the thought of it makes you cringe. Like it or not, bedbugs are making a comeback, and they don't discriminate. Here's what you need to know about avoiding a bedbug infestation -- and how to recognize and treat the problem if it happens to you.
An immature bedbug (left) and an adult bedbug. Photo: Tim McCoy, AP
Chances are, you've been hearing a lot about bedbugs lately, and with good reason. In August 2010, reports of bedbug infestation
climbed drastically, signaling an epidemic that, according to CBS News
, is the worst our country has seen in decades.
(SEE: The 15 most most bedbug-infested cities in the U.S.
Sure we all know the old saying, "don't let the bedbugs bite," but what are bedbugs
anyway? In short, they're bloodsucking parasites that feed primarily on humans (but may also bite pets
In their quest for food, bedbugs may find their way into homes, where they commonly infest sleeping areas (hence their name), but also lurk inside other furniture and even in walls. They feed at night, and often go unnoticed by the host (that's you). Bedbugs can live six to eight months without a meal -- and the suckers can be nearly impossible to kill.
(SEE: A bedbug survivor's horrifying real-life experience.)
A bedbug problem can be difficult to identify. And once you have discovered an infestation, it can be even more difficult to navigate the next steps. We turned to Ron Harrison, Ph.D., Orkin Director of Technical Services
, and Jeffery White, Research Entomologist with Bed Bug Central
, for their expert advice on avoiding, identifying, and dealing with a bedbug infestation.
Bedbugs become engorged and dark in color after they bite. Photo: AP
The first step, says Harrison, is understanding where bedbugs come from, and why they seem to be everywhere right now. "The resurgence in bedbug activity is likely linked to increased travel, both internationally and domestically," says Harrison. Of course, widespread information about the elusive bedbug in recent years may also play a part. "People's awareness of bedbugs has increased, leading to more reported cases as people now know what they're dealing with."
"Bed bugs were virtually eradicated from the U.S. shortly after the end of World War II due to the commercial use of DDT
," adds White. He explains that about ten years ago bedbugs began appearing again, and since 2005 their numbers have been increasing exponentially.
Harrison calls bedbugs "expert hitchhikers" that will cling to clothing and other personal belongings and usually go unnoticed. You can come in contact with them just about anywhere, indoors or outdoors.
It's also been widely reported that secondhand furniture can introduce bedbugs into your home
-- bedbugs especially like to live inside of wood furniture, upholstery and, of course, mattresses.
(SEE: Use a Mattress Encasement for Bedbug Prevention)
So what about the thrift store and flea market junkies among us? Harrison recommends treating secondhand items with extreme heat before bringing them into your home. "Clothing [should be washed and dried] in a hot cycle prior to being brought into the house. This will kill all stages of the insect."
You can unknowingly carry bedbugs into the home via infested secondhand furniture. Photo: Mustafa Ozer, AFP/Getty Images
You can also consider purchasing the Packtite portable heating unit
for items, like household furnishings, that cannot go in a dryer. Check out this video about treating personal belongings
before they come into the house, and this video about using the heat of the sun for items that cannot be laundered
Do Dirty Conditions Breed Bedbugs?
It's a common misconception that bedbugs plague only dirty places, as evidenced by recent infestations in some high-end locations, like The Hamptons
in New York. As blood-feeders, bedbugs are primarily interested in people -- regardless of their surroundings. So where does the myth come from? "Bedbugs tend to infest cluttered areas where they can hide, feed and reproduce," says Harrison. "But these places are not necessarily the dirtiest. The clutter simply provides more hiding spaces and makes detection even more difficult."
Unless you're looking, you'll likely miss the chance for early detection.
-- Bedbug bites:
For most people, the earliest (and sometimes only) signs of bedbugs are their bites. Bedbug bites
often appear clustered together in a horizontal line. They generally manifest as small, red, itchy bites
. But people react differently to bedbug bites and it can be difficult to confirm an infestation by the bites alone. While bedbugs do carry diseases, they do not transmit them.
-- Bedbug appearance:
If you suspect a bedbug infestation
, look for evidence of the bugs and their eggs. Bedbug eggs
are a pearly white color and just 1mm long. Immature bugs are the same size as their eggs and somewhat translucent in color with a dark center. As the bugs advance through their developmental stages they become larger and darker. A fully grown bed bug is just under 3/16 of an inch long (roughly the size of an apple seed), flat and oval-shaped. They are a light tan or brown color until after they bite, when they will appear a brownish-red. Jeffrey White of Bed Bug Central shares this video about how to inspect for bed bugs
-- Bedbug waste: Bedbugs leave brownish-red spots and shed skins
An adult bedbug is about 3/16 of an inch long. Photo: Ken Lambert, MCT
in their wake. "
You need to be familiar with...what the [bedbug's] spotting (fecal material and blood spots) looks like," says White. "It's important to inspect likely areas of first infestation, such as the bed and the headboard." White warns to pay close attention to the bottom of the box spring, where the insects like to congregate. Even with your best sleuthing efforts, though,
bedbugs can outsmart you. They hide very well and move very fast as soon as they're exposed to light. White says that if you're not trained to perform inspections, you can easily overlook bedbugs. Contacting a knowledgeable professional may be your best bet.
How to Get Rid of Bedbugs
Even the keenest of DIYers may not be be able to take on the virtually indestructible bedbug. This is one of those jobs that, in most cases, is best left to professionals. A qualified pest management expert
will recommend the best treatment approach depending on the severity of the infestation. Most solutions require chemicals, with structural fumigation
being the most extreme (and costly) option. It will likely require at least two or three visits -- but usually more -- to ensure that the entire bedbug population has been eradicated. Sadly, you may also have to discard your mattress, bed, and some other belongings to make a fresh start.
"The biggest thing a homeowner or property manager can do to help slow the spread of bed bugs is to remove clutter and dispose of any infested items, like cardboard boxes, furniture, papers, and toys. These can provide hiding spots for bedbugs," says Harrison. The Orkin specialist also suggests aggressively vacuuming around the home, especially near baseboards and the bed.
Also, turn up the heat on those suckers. "Bedbugs cannot survive severely high temperatures for long durations of time, so regularly washing and drying clothes and linens in hot water can help remove them," says Harrison. Some pest management companies also also offer heat treatment (in some locations), which raises the room's temperature beyond that in which bedbugs can survive. While this may not be a suitable option for all infestations, it is certainly worth inquiring about.
Interested in learning more? Bed Bug TV
is a great resource, where Jeffrey White educates viewers about bedbugs and bed bug solutions. He is the Bed Bug Guru, and somehow manages to make the topic approachable.
Tell us about your experiences with bedbugs, and how you banished those bloodsucking pests from your home for good!
Are Bedbugs a Health Threat? (AOL Health)
A Very Personal Tale of a Truly Horrifying Bedbug Infestation (ShelterPop)
Bedbugs on Clothing -- How to Spot 'Em, How to Get Rid of 'Em (Stylelist)