Don’t let the bed bugs bite. We’ve all heard this cute saying, but there’s nothing cute about a real bed bug infestation. It can cost you big bucks and lots of emotional distress. This creepy epidemic is on the rise all over the country, and the only way to avoid it is by arming yourself with knowledge.
The most recent bed bug survey, conducted in 2015 by the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), found that more than 99% of all professional exterminators in the U.S. had been hired at least once in the previous year to treat a bed bug infestation. Compare this to 2000, when only 10% of exterminators said the same.
Many home infestations begin after a vacation or hotel stay. If you don’t take the proper precautions, bed bugs and their eggs can hitch a ride on your luggage or clothes. Next thing you know, you have a thriving bed bug population inside your home.
Bed bugs are extremely difficult to get rid of. A can of bug spray won’t do it; if your house is infested, you’ll be forced to adopt drastic and costly measures.
What Are Bed Bugs?
This insidious creature behaves quite differently from other insects, requiring unconventional methods to evade them successfully. Understanding the characteristics of an infestation and what to do when you have one are the first steps toward protecting yourself.
Where They Come From
Bed bugs can be traced back to the Roman Empire. The name “bed bug” stems from the fact that these parasitic insects feed on blood typically between midnight and 5am when the victim is asleep. Bed bugs first made their appearance in North America by hitching a ride with colonists.
Infestations began to drop sharply in the mid-1900s as awareness of the problem – coupled with the rise of modern household appliances like vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and dryers – helped curb the spread. The development of powerful and effective pesticides was the tipping point, and bed bugs were all but eradicated in modern, industrialized countries by the 1950s.
Since the late 1990s, bed bugs have made a comeback, and they seem to have returned stronger than ever. One reason is lack of public awareness since bed bug infestations had almost ceased to exist. Another is a substantial increase in air travel, particularly to and from countries where bed bugs are still a problem.
What They Look Like
An adult bed bug is brown in color, oval in shape, and about the size of an apple seed. Its body is flat when hungry. After it has fed, its appearance becomes plump and its color takes on a red tinge.
Adolescent bed bugs are smaller in size, slightly yellow, and almost transparent, making them very hard to see. Bed bug eggs are the size of a pinhead and are white. At these life cycle stages, identifying bed bugs can be extremely difficult, but not impossible.
How They Infest an Area
Bed bugs love hitching a ride on someone or something; it’s the primary way they enter a living space. This is why you must be prudent when staying in a hotel. The seams of your luggage make excellent hiding spots for bed bugs. Even your clothes can carry these nasty little creatures and their eggs into your home if you fail to take precautions.
Another way bed bugs can spread is through items you pick up at a secondhand store like used clothes or furniture. If you bring home an already infected article of clothing or a couch with a population living between the cushions, it won’t be long before bed bugs find and infest your bedroom.
A word of warning: just because a piece of furniture is made of wood, that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Bed bugs are known to hide in the cracks and crevices of wooden furniture too.
Bed bugs might also be in your home long before you move in. Ask the landlord or owner as many questions as possible when thinking about buying a house or renting an apartment.
Where They Like to Hide
Bed bugs like to hide in narrow places like the seams of your mattress. But your bed isn’t the only place they hang out; any slit or opening will do as long as it’s close to where someone sleeps.
Don’t ignore a spot because you think it might be too narrow for an insect to hide inside. Bed bugs’ flat bodies are perfect for tight spaces, allowing them to wedge themselves into the slimmest cracks in your walls, baseboards, and furniture.
Signs of an Infestation
If you wake up in the morning and discover a couple of itchy bites, don’t panic yet. The appearance of a few insect bites alone is not a sign that your home has a bed bug problem. You may have simply been bitten by a mosquito the night before.
You need a visual sighting of bed bugs to prove the existence of an infestation. The most likely place to find conclusive evidence is your bed. Pull back the sheets and see if you can spot any bed bugs. Pay special attention to areas of your mattress like stitching which they can crawl into and hide.
How to Tell If You’ve Been Bitten
Bed bug bites can sometimes take a few days to appear. Unlike mosquitos, bed bugs usually bite in rows, with two to three bites per row. They also secrete a kind of analgesic, or painkiller, allowing them to bite their victim without the victim feeling it; this is how they feed without waking you up.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bed bug bites have not been known to spread disease. However, they affect people in varying degrees of severity. Though uncommon, it is possible to have an allergic reaction to bed bug bites.
Bed Bug Myths
1. Bed Bug Infestations Only Occur Under Unsanitary Conditions
Bed bugs can be found anywhere under any condition. These resilient insects have even been found in five-star hotels. An infestation is in no way a mark against the cleanliness of the establishment; hotels take pest control very seriously. But if just one guest with infected luggage stays in a hotel room, it’s enough to start an infestation.
2. Pesticides Alone Are Enough to Exterminate Bed Bugs
Bed bugs are an extremely difficult pest to get rid of, and recently they’ve begun showing resistance to some of the older pesticides in use. Although pesticides play a major role in eliminating an infestation, professionals usually use a multi-faceted approach, employing a number of options including pesticides.
3. Wrapping Your Mattress in a Plastic Cover Will Solve the Problem
Some people try this thinking that it will isolate the bed bugs and effectively starve them to death. But bed bugs can live a long time without a meal. According to Terminix, the adult bedbug can live for five months without feeding on blood. And even if you do cover your mattress and wait it out, you’re forgetting about all the other bed bugs hiding elsewhere in the room.
4. A Thorough Vacuuming Is Enough to Get Rid of Bed Bugs
Yes, it helps, but vacuuming by itself won’t do the job completely. Even if you vacuum along the seams of your bed, you won’t be able to pick up all the eggs wedged into tight crevices. You might even make the problem worse by spreading them into other areas of your home when you empty the vacuum cleaner.
5. Bed Bugs Won’t Spread From Apartment to Apartment
It’s a mistake to assume that bed bugs are limited to one particular area like an infested bed. They can and do move around from apartment to apartment. This is why it’s imperative that a landlord treat every apartment in a building that shows signs of infestation.
6. It’s Impossible to Be Unaware of a Bed Bug Infestation in Your Home
It’s actually quite possible. Many people have an infestation in their homes and have no idea. You don’t always know if you’ve been bitten; according to Scientific American, 30% of people don’t have any reaction to bed bug bites. The elderly seem to be the least reactive.
The Cost of Bed Bugs
Since bed bugs don’t behave like other insects, the usual methods of eradicating an infestation are often ineffective. Most people find it almost impossible to get rid of an infestation without professional help. That’s why bed bugs are among the most costly pests to get rid of.
1. Professional Pest Removal
According to Fixr.com, the average cost of hiring a professional bed bug exterminator is between $1,000 and $2,500; depending on the size of your home, your cost could be more or less than this.
There is no silver bullet to get rid of a bed bug infestation. Most professionals use a combination of techniques and methods to locate the pests, determine a plan of action, and begin the removal process. Follow-up inspections and treatments are often necessary to make sure the infestation has been completely neutralized.
If you’ve decided to hire a professional, make sure to ask lots of questions before you settle on one, including:
- How much experience have you had with bed bugs?
- What treatments or methods do you plan to use?
- How many follow-up visits are included in the price?
- Can you guarantee your work? If you need to keep coming back until the problem is resolved, will it be free of charge?
2. Property Damage
Some victims are so demoralized (or disgusted) by an infestation that they end up throwing out their mattresses, carpets, and furniture.
While it’s sometimes necessary in extreme cases, most professionals will tell you not to throw anything out. If the infestation hasn’t been neutralized, any new bed or furniture you bring in will soon become infested too.
3. Emotional Impact
The thought of being attacked by tiny, bloodsucking insects as soon as you drift off to sleep can cause many a sleepless night. The Atlantic reports that people dealing with bed bug infestations in their home suffer from anxiety, depression, and paranoia brought on by the traumatic ordeal.
These psychological and emotional problems are made worse by the fact that infestations often reappear if the bed bugs weren’t completely eradicated by initial treatments.
4. Health Risks
Bed bugs are not known to transmit diseases. However, there can be a number of health risks involved with an infestation. Bed bug bites are quite itchy, and scratching them can lead to a skin rash or possibly an infection.
Red bumps, blood blisters, and other types of skin irritation are common soon after being bitten. Although it’s rare, some people have been known to develop a severe allergic reaction.
How to Avoid Bringing Bed Bugs Home From Your Next Trip
Whenever you travel, you risk bringing back bed bugs or their eggs; hotel stays are one of the most common ways bed bugs are introduced into a home. You may think you’re safe if you only stay at world-class hotels, but bed bug infestations can happen anywhere, in any hotel, at any time.
1. Research the Hotel
Before you make a reservation, call up the hotel ask them questions like:
- Have you ever had a bed bug infestation? If yes, how long ago was it? (If it was six to eight weeks ago or longer, the hotel is most likely bed-bug-free.)
- Do you have a professional exterminator on call, and is that exterminator well-versed in bed bug control?
- What procedures do you have in place in the event of a bed bug infestation?
Chances are that when you start asking questions like these, you’ll have a very nervous hotel employee on the other end of the line. Don’t be shy and don’t back down. If you get answers that are unsatisfactory, try another hotel.
The hotel may alleviate your fears by giving you the right answers, but you still need to verify what they told you. Run an online search for the name of the hotel and the words “bed bug.” The results should give you a more accurate picture than what the hotel may have said.
You can also search for the hotel on the Bed Bug Registry, a user-submitted database containing over 20,000 bed bug reports for 12,000 locations across the U.S. and Canada. If the hotel you’ll be staying at has had a problem with bed bugs in the past, chances are it will show up in this database.
Remember that these reports are user-submitted, so they may not all be conclusive evidence of infestation. Some users might be disgruntled hotel guests trying to get back at the hotel for a bad experience. Your best bet is to cross-check the information you find in the Bed Bug Registry against your independent research.
2. Wrap Your Luggage in Plastic
Before you begin your trip, taking a few simple precautions can go a long way. Luggage, especially the soft-sided type, is the bed bug’s favorite way to travel as there are plenty of seams to hide in and the material is easy to cling to.
Hard-shelled luggage isn’t as easy for them to hitch a ride on, but don’t let it give you a false sense of security. Bed bugs can crawl into any luggage if it’s left open and unattended in your hotel room.
The best thing you can do is wrap your luggage in plastic, effectively preventing any bed bugs from getting in. A garbage bag will work, but if you want something that looks better, you can buy plastic luggage covers in all shapes and sizes. Make sure any cover you buy has no seams and is labeled as an anti-insect cover.
Don’t wait until you get to the hotel to wrap your luggage in plastic. Do it at home before you head to the airport. Bed bugs have been known to hide in the cargo holds of airplanes.
3. Put Your Luggage in the Bathroom
The first thing you should do when you get to your hotel room is put your luggage in the bathroom. This is the least likely place to find bed bugs as there aren’t as many hiding places and they don’t like hard, polished surfaces such as tile. Bed bugs also prefer to hang out closer to their source of food, and the bathroom in many hotel rooms is a fair distance from the bed.
Once your luggage is safely in the bathroom, it’s time to check the rest of the room for signs of infestation.
4. Use a Flashlight to Check the Room
Use a flashlight or a penlight to check for any signs of bed bugs. Look for:
- Adult bed bugs, which are brown, oval-shaped, and the size of an apple seed.
- Adolescent bed bugs, which are usually smaller and lighter in color.
- Eggs, which can be the size of a pinhead and are white.
- Small stains on the sheets and mattress. These can be bed bug fecal spots and are usually light brown or black.
- Exoskeletons or shells. This type of insect sheds its skin quite often.
- A musty, sweet odor. The stronger the scent, the larger the bed bug population may be.
Focus your search on these areas of the room:
- The bed. Check along the seams of the bed, under the sheets, in the pillowcases, on pillows, and along the headboards. Don’t forget the box spring.
- Couches and chairs. Check along the seams and under the cushions.
- Other furniture. Check in the joints and cracks of furniture like nightstands and dressers. Don’t forget to look inside drawers too.
- Nooks and crannies, no matter how small. This includes in electrical outlets, behind loose wallpaper, in the gaps of baseboards and paneling, and inside cracks in the wall.
5. Keep Belongings Off the Floor & Bed
Always make sure to keep your belongings off the floor, and don’t put anything on the bed. Place your luggage on a luggage rack after you’ve inspected it for signs of bed bugs. If no rack is available, put your luggage on a desk or other elevated surface as far from the bed as possible.
6. Hang Your Clothes
Hang your clothes in the closet rather than putting them in drawers. Even if you’ve already inspected the drawers, bed bugs may still be lurking in joints or cracks of the wood. Your clothes are safer on hangers, where they’re suspended above and away from infested surfaces. If the hangers the hotel provides are made of wood, check them to make sure there are no cracks bed bugs may be hiding in.
It’s also wise to give your clothes a good shake before you pack them back into your suitcase for the trip home. This isn’t a foolproof way to get rid of any bed bugs or eggs on your garments, but it doesn’t hurt.
If you’ve taken the precaution of encasing your luggage in plastic, you may prefer not to unpack at all, choosing to live out of your suitcase instead. There are no guarantees with bed bugs, but this option is the safest of all.
7. Ask for a New Room
If you’ve completed the inspection of your hotel room and determined that a bed bug infestation does indeed exist, alert hotel management immediately. Hotels take bed bugs very seriously and will usually jump at even the mention of this type of infestation.
If the management doesn’t offer you a new room, ask for one yourself. You won’t have to push very far to get it if the hotel is a reputable one. Make sure your new room is at least two floors away from your old, infested room.
8. Check Your Luggage Before Bringing It Into Your Home
Once your trip is over and you’re back home, don’t bring in your luggage just yet. Quarantine it somewhere outside of your house like a garage or tool shed and give it a thorough examination inside and out. Don’t forget to check those seams. If you live in an apartment, the bathtub or a balcony will suffice.
9. Wash & Dry Your Clothes
Unpack your clothes and wash everything, even the items you didn’t wear. Don’t put them in the laundry room or throw them in the hamper to wash later; take them straight out of your suitcase and put them in the washing machine immediately.
After the wash cycle, dry the load in the dryer. High temperatures will kill any bed bugs or eggs that survived the washing. This is the safest way to avoid an infestation if any bed bugs were hiding in your clothes.
10. Vacuum & Clean Your Luggage Before Storing It
With your luggage still quarantined, vacuum it inside and out, again paying special attention to the seams. Run a lint roller over the surfaces to pick up anything the vacuum cleaner missed.
Take this precaution even if you have a hard-shelled suitcase. It’s better to be safe than have to go through the ordeal of an infestation in your home.
At this point, you can safely store away the luggage until you need it again. If it was wrapped in a plastic cover or garbage bag during your trip, put it back into this cover before storing it. If you missed any bed bugs, they will most likely be dead by the time you need to use the luggage for your next trip.
It’s much better to take the extra steps to protect yourself from a bed bug infestation than have to face the consequences of one. Once these creatures invade an area like your bedroom, it’s virtually impossible to get rid of them without pouring lots of money into the problem and causing yourself considerable stress.
No one wants to have to worry about this sort of thing when they’re on vacation, but the bed bug problem is on the rise across the country. If you don’t have a plan in place to avoid bringing them home with you, you may regret it in the future.
Have you ever had a bed bug infestation in your home? Do you take any precautions against bed bugs while traveling?