Angie's List member Wendy Maland knew something was wrong in her Chicago condo when she developed a weird rash she couldn't explain. Then she found a bed bug in her room, and made a shocking discovery when she turned over her mattress. "The infestation was horrifying and disgusting," she says.
Maland hired highly rated Nevernest Pest Control of Chicago, which used a multipronged chemical approach to eliminate the bugs. She followed up with extensive cleaning and bug traps and hasn't had a problem since.
Highly rated Chicago pest control companies say they've seen a huge increase in bed bug calls. "In the last three years, it's taken off exponentially in Chicago," says David Harris-John, vice president of highly rated Smithereen Pest Management Services in Niles [Ill.]. "In 2010, we did double the bed bug work over the year before." In recent studies, Orkin ranked Chicago third among bed bug-infested cities, and Terminix ranked the city fifth.
Aggressive efforts after World War II nearly wiped out the common bed bug 60 years ago. The invasive pest re-emerged in recent years around the world, but nobody's quite sure why. Experts suspect increased travel, lack of public awareness and resistance to modern pesticides all play a role.
Service providers say many people are ashamed because they feel it means their house is unclean, but dirt has nothing to do with it. The critters live only on blood, so they go to wherever people are - hence their propensity for sleeping spaces.
"They've evolved into extremely effective hitchhikers," says entomologist Jeffrey White of BedBug Central, a nationwide online clearinghouse of bed bug information. The small bugs can hop onto clothing or luggage and travel back to your home undetected. Just one pregnant female can lead to an infestation.
"Bed bugs don't discriminate between rich and poor or dirty and clean," says Linda DeVelasco, owner of highly rated Bed Bug Solutions in Des Plaines [Ill.].
"If you're human and you have blood, they're happy to go home with you," she adds. "You could be the cleanest person in the world, but if you go to the wrong hotel or theater or airplane, you bring it home with you."
While traveling, White recommends inspecting a hotel bed's headboards, mattress and box springs, as bed bugs can survive for months without feeding. Bed bugs are just under one-quarter inch long and easily spotted with the naked eye. He also suggests washing clothes in hot water or putting them in a hot dryer, which kills bed bugs; and inspecting your belongings and clothes before coming home.
But it's easy to miss the clever intruders. Since bed bugs only venture out while you sleep, the first sign is usually the bites themselves, which can be mistaken for rashes or allergic reactions.
Michael Manning, owner of highly rated Resolve Pest Solutions in Chicago, recommends inspecting bed linens closely. "You should monitor your bed sheets for blood markings," Manning says. "You won't feel it if you're bitten at night, because the bugs release an anesthetic, but they leave a little blood smudge."
You can also place traps on your bed legs; since bed bugs can't fly, they have to crawl up the legs to reach you. Pest control supply stores sell them. They're inexpensive and often look like a plastic cup around the foot of the bed.
Some four-legged friends follow their nose to sniff out the eight-legged invaders. DeVelasco's detection dog, Scooby, is specially trained to pinpoint bed bugs and their eggs within a few feet.
"A canine inspector is trained just like bomb dogs or rescue dogs," she says. "They're just looking for the scent. Bed bugs hide in cracks and crevices and places we couldn't possibly look. A well-trained dog could find that odor in the dark, even if it's a single egg."
White says there's one bright spot in the bed bug outbreak: The worst health effect you're likely to get is an itchy reaction to the bites. "Bed bugs have not been shown to have the ability to transmit any kind of disease," he says. "The biggest impact the bugs have is the mental stress that homeowners go through when they have an infestation."
Experts agree that panicking is no help when faced with bed bugs. "I've seen people immediately throw out the bed and get new springs and mattresses," Harris-John says. "Throwing the bed away doesn't do any good if they're also in the walls or furniture." Spraying the entire house on your own can make the problem worse; bed bugs will run from the pesticide and hide even deeper in the house, where they're harder to detect, White says.
Instead, White recommends hiring a trusted exterminator and working with them to determine the best course of action. Among the solutions: Applying multiple chemicals in case the bugs are resistant to a specific one; using steam or freezing cold to kill bugs in specific spots; using industrial-strength heaters to warm the entire house to 120 degrees, which will kill all bed bugs. Spreading diatomaceous earth (crushed fossilized dust) in areas of suspected infestation is also effective and inexpensive.
Manning says using multiple pesticides is important because bed bugs are proving resistant to certain chemicals. "You won't know if a particular bug is resistant to a given chemical unless it's been tried on them," he says.
However, many of the best measures can be cost-prohibitive and time-intensive. Depending on the scope of the infestation, the solutions can involve multiple applications, extensive preparation to protect the house itself, and cost thousands of dollars.
"This problem isn't going to go away anytime soon, but the big push right now is to make treatment more affordable," White says. "Every month, we see new products to control this more effectively."
Maland echoes the need to remain calm. "It's important to approach this problem rationally and know that there are solutions," she says. "There's no need for this to cause social tension or ostracism. You don't need to uproot your entire life.