If you have watched the news this summer, then you probably think bed bugs--also known as Cimex lectularius--are taking over the world, or at least NYC. The bed bug population in the U.S. has grown at an alarming rate in recent months.
A Joint Statement on Bed Bug Control in the United States from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) was issued in August. Although the exact cause of the resurgence is not known, according to the CDC:
"Experts suspect the resurgence is associated with increased resistance of bed bugs to available pesticides, greater international and domestic travel, lack of knowledge regarding control of bed bugs due to their prolonged absence, and the continuing decline or elimination of effective vector/pest control programs at state and local public health agencies."
When bed bugs bite
Bed bugs are a pest. The yuck factor of these blood sucking external parasites (ectoparasites) is huge. Fortunately they do not transmit disease. Some people may get an allergic reaction to the bites. It is also possible to get a secondary infection from the bite. You probably won't even feel their bite because the bugs inject a type of anesthetic and anticoagulant. What you will notice is the small swollen red mark at the bite site that becomes itchy.
Bed bugs and head lice both feed on the human blood, but are not known to transmit disease like other external parasites such as body lice.
How to identify bed bugs
Bed bugs are similar in appearance to a small wood tick. When bed bugs have a meal of blood, their color changes from brown to a purple red and they become more elongated. According to the US EPA:
- Adult bed bugs are 1/4 to 3/8 inch (4-5 mm) long, brown in color, with a flat, oval-shaped body;
- young bed bugs are smaller and lighter in color
Bed bug photos
Helpful photo illustrations of bed bugs and where they hide can be seen at these links:
- US EPA
- Univ. of MN: Traveler Q & A: Preventing bed bugs from hitchhiking to your home
- Bed bug versus Bat Bug
Where do bed bugs live?
Bed bugs are tiny hitchhikers that latch on to an object and move around unnoticed. In general, they don't hitch a ride on human skin or hair, but prefer to ride on clothing or other objects. That's why you need to check out furniture, beds, suitcases, purses, clothing, etc. Bed bugs like the dark and are known to travel up to 100 feet in one night. They often hide in crevices. Common hiding places are near mattress seams, labels or piping--even in the head board. A major infestation in a home warrants checking all furniture, draperies, storage areas, and even appliances. If you can slip a credit card under an object such as loose wall paper, consider this an easy entry space for the tiny bugs to find a place to hide. Because the young bugs are tiny (1/16" -1/4") and nearly translucent, they are difficult to see. Bed bugs are found in places people sleep, but they can also infest stores and theaters or any place people hang out.
Bed bugs in clothing
When removing clothing you think is infested, stand on bare floor and not on carpet so you can spot them if they fall to the floor. You can even get the floor slightly wet before you remove the clothing because this will make it more difficult for the bugs to escape. High temperature (100 -120 F) washing and drying can be effective in killing bugs on clothing. For detailed instructions check out this Univ. of MN link.
Bed bugs in luggage
If you suspect your luggage is infested, place luggage in an air tight plastic bag to contain the bugs. Some methods of getting rid of the bugs inside luggage include high temperature washing (100 - 120 F), heating the bags to a very high core temp (120 F), or freezing (-15 F) the bags. Exact directions for these methods can be found at the Traveler Q & A link at the Univ. of MN.
Signs of bed bug infestation
According to the US EPA here are some warning signs:
- small dark spots the size of dot made by a pen are bed bug excrement
- tiny white eggs and eggshells (about 1mm)
- skins that young bed bugs shed when they mature
- live bed bugs
- rusty or reddish stains on sheets or mattresses caused by bed bugs being crushed
What to do if you find bed bugs
Both the US EPA and the CDC offer detailed instructions for what you can do if you find bed bugs in your home or office or dorm. A few tips to keep bed bugs away include:
- thoroughly checking luggage and clothing when returning from a trip
- using luggage racks when staying at a hotel
- keep purses and briefcases off the floor
- removing clutter that provides a hiding space
- sealing cracks that might be hiding spaces
- using heat treatment such as washing and drying clothing and linens at high temperatures to kill the bed bugs
- seal mattresses, box springs, and pillows in special encasements to trap bed bugs
If you suspect your dorm room is infested, contact the housing director or your dorm RA immediately. Getting professional help is key to getting rid of them. According to a recent article in The Huffington Post, simply vacuuming and washing your sheets is not a solution to getting rid of the bug hitchhikers in crowded areas such as dorms.
If bed bugs take up residence in your house, the National Pesticide Information Center has useful information on how to select and use pesticide products safely.
The recent bed bug resurgence requires that all of us be watchful. New bed bug infestations in public spaces crop up daily. Since bed bugs are very hardy and can survive for over a year without feeding, I am guessing we will be lifting up the sheets and checking our mattresses for a long time. However, bed bugs are not stopping me from traveling. In August I attended BlogHer 10 in NYC with my daughter. We followed the necessary precautions on our trip and kept are eyes open for warning signs. I am happy to say we didn't see a single bed bug.
For more information:
- Bed Bugs CDC-EPA Joint Statement - CDC
- Bed Bugs - Pesticides - US EPA
- Bed Bug Prevention and Control - Univ. of MN
- Bed bug hotel safety
- Traveler Q & A: Preventing bed bugs from hitchhiking to your home
- Bogdan Rau: Keep Bed Bugs Out of Your Dorm!
- University of Kentucky Bed Bug Fact Sheet
- NYC.gov - Bed bugs
- Bedbugs Crawl, They Bite, They Baffle Scientists - NYTimes.com