Bed bugs are mostly found in and around beds, hence the name. But they are also found in other places. A review paper published in Pesticide Biochemistry and Physiology noted that, though 70 percent of bed bugs are found in beds, 23 percent are found in upholstered furniture, with the remaining 7 percent in other locations. Wherever humans sit or sleep, bed bugs have been found: in office buildings, schools, movie theaters, retail stores, trains, buses, dorms, and laundry facilities.
Because bed bugs are good at hiding, you often don’t see them. But even when you do, you may mistake them for something else, such as young carpet beetles or cockroaches. Adults are about the size of apple seeds, while the eggs are the size of poppy seeds, and both have a reddish-brown hue. They leave dark or rust-colored spots on sheets, mattress, upholstered furniture, or clothing. These are the bugs’ feces, which contain blood from their feeding.
Bed bugs were common in the U.S. before World War II. But thanks to better hygiene and the use of pesticides (namely DDT), they were pretty much eliminated by the 1950s. Since the late 1990s, however, reports of bed bugs are back on the rise, with infestations reported in hotels, houses, apartments, college dorms, and schools. Among the possible reasons cited for the resurgence are resistance to pesticides, poor pest control, and increases in travel and immigration. (Countries in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe have long had bed bug infestations.)
Bed bugs are attracted to sleeping humans because of the carbon dioxide we exhale, our body heat, and a variety of different chemicals secreted from human skin. The bugs hate light, which is why they’re active at night, usually feeding from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., a time that you’re not likely to be up and about to notice they’re crawling around. And then they go into hiding during the day.
When the bed bug pierces your skin with its needle-like proboscis, it inserts a little bit of saliva. The saliva contains proteins, some with anti-clotting and blood vessel-widening properties. These ensure the bug can feed on blood, which can take five minutes or so, without the blood clotting. It’s likely you’ll never feel the bite, partly because chemicals in bed bug saliva have anesthetic properties. But the bites result in an intense, itchy fluid-filled rash, caused by the immune system responding to the protein in the saliva.
This makes bed bugs different from some other biting insects, like mosquitoes and ticks, and it’s surprising since numerous pathogens (viruses, bacteria, and protozoa) have been found in or on bed bugs. These include HIV, the viruses that cause hepatitis B and C, and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria. But while pathogens live and reproduce inside ticks and mosquitoes, which both transmit diseases, they don’t live and reproduce inside the bed bugs.
To protect yourself if you’re staying at a hotel, put your bags on the luggage rack (check the straps, hinges, and any crevices first) rather than on the bed or floor. Some sources recommend putting your luggage in the bathtub, because the bugs have a tough time sticking to the slick surface. Either way, thoroughly inspect all bed surfaces in your room. If you detect any signs of bed bugs, ask the front desk to move you to another floor. For more information on how to avoid bed bugs in hotel rooms, check out this YouTube video from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
If you suspect you have bed bugs in your home, hire a pest control professional to get rid of them. Exposing the bugs to heat by warming the rooms to 122° F for four hours or steam cleaning the area can both be effective. Also effective is diatomaceous earth, a silica-based powder that dries out and, as a result, kills the bed bugs. All of these methods should be tried before going for harsher pesticides. The Virginia Cooperative Extension has good information on how to manage bed bugs without using chemicals.
In addition to professional treatment, these DIY techniques can help get rid of bedbugs for good: Put clothing that may be infested in a dryer on medium to high for 10 minutes or so to kill the bugs and their eggs. Washing clothes at 140° F also works. Use encasements for mattresses and box springs; when zipped, these trap the insects inside and eventually suffocate them. This is a better strategy than getting rid of the infested mattress and box springs, which is unnecessary and expensive, and ineffective since other furniture could potentially be contaminated too.
Also see Summer Bugs That Can Bite You.