What are bed bugs?
A bed bug is a parasitic insect from the Cimicidae family known to wreak havoc in bedrooms around the world. The common bed bug, known as Cimex lectularius in the scientific community, feasts on human blood and takes its name from its preferred living space — YOUR BED.
The tiny bugs are red or brown in color and have a flat, oval-shaped body. Adults can grow up to 5 millimeters in length.
Bed bugs thrive in climates similar to human beings. Although bed bugs cannot fly, they are fast movers around floors and walls.
Bed bugs use their stylet fascicle to pierce the skin of their hosts to extract blood, often without being detected. As a result, many people experience skin rashes, allergies and other infections from bed bug exposure.
Aggressive efforts after World War II nearly wiped out the common bed bug 60 years ago. The invasive pest re-emerged 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.
The good news about bed bugs is they are not a serious health threat. Their bites can cause large red marks and swelling in some people, but they are not known to transmit diseases.
Fortunately, exterminators are trained to eliminate bed bugs through various techniques, from chemicals to steam to freezing.
Video: How to get rid of bed bugs
Signs of bed bug infestation
Looking for bed bug signs? Because the tiny insects are so adept at hiding during the day, it's often hard to spot infestations until they become large.
They're much like vampires who only come out to feed on their prey under the cover of darkness.
Bed bugs are usually found in chairs, couches and beds. They often hide in the headboards on beds or the folds in the mattress.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, bed bugs can also hide in the folds of curtains and under loose wall paper and wall hangings.
Most infestations are not discovered until a home or apartment dweller starts discovering bites.
Here are some warning signs that bed bugs may have taken residence in your home:
Bite marks on the body. These bites usually come in groups of three. It’s called the breakfast, lunch and dinner pattern. It’s caused by the bite marks the bug makes as it walks across your body.
Stains on the mattress. Small red and brown stains at the top part and corners of your mattress or near the headboard are caused by the bugs defecating on the way back to their dwelling.
A noticeable sweet aroma. A heavy bed bug infestation can cause a sweet aroma in the room where their habitat is located. Some have described it as smelling like raspberries or rotting fruit.
You will most often find bed bugs in or around your mattress. (Photo courtesy of American Pest)
Avoiding bed bugs
It is hard to tell exactly how bed bugs are brought into the home, but there are several possible ways. To avoid contaminating your home, be careful with your luggage and other belongings while traveling or using public transportation. Because bed bugs get into luggage, some service providers refer to them as "hitchhikers."
Also, do not pick up any furnishings you find on the street.
While traveling, experts recommend inspecting a hotel bed's headboards, mattress and box springs, as bed bugs can survive for months without feeding. Pull down the sheets and fitted sheet. Look along the seams of the mattress and the box spring for little reddish/brownish tick-sized insects. There also might be small, blackish spots, which are actually dried bed bug droppings. If you don’t see any of these signs, it should be safe to unpack and settle in. However, you do want to inspect your belongings and clothes before coming home.
Service providers say many people are ashamed of bed bugs because they think 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.
Bed bug infestation has nothing to do with whether your house is clean, nor whether you live in an expensive home or a cheap one. Bed bugs have evolved into extremely effective hitchhikers that can hop onto clothing or luggage and travel back to your home undetected. Just one pregnant female can lead to an infestation.
Bed bugs feed on human blood. (Photo courtesy of National Pest Management Association/Tom Myers)
Best ways to get rid of bed bugs
If you have bed bugs in your home, you can help control them by getting rid of clutter and by using special mattress covers.
Gather all items suspected of carrying bed bugs and put them in plastic bags until the items can be laundered, washed by hand, heated or frozen.
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.
The best way to completely eradicate an infestation is to hire a professional. Exterminators are trained to eliminate bed bug infestations, and prevent re-exposure after treatment.
Some of the elimination methods an exterminator may use include 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 to 130 degrees for four hours, which will kill all bed bugs, larvae and eggs.
Some exterminators also use trained sniffer dogs to narrow down where the bugs hide during the day.