It seems like there has been a recent lull in reports about bedbug infestations, which makes it tempting to assume that the problem itself is going away. Unfortunately, experts on these parasitic insects warn of a big resurgence coming in the summer of 2011. The good news is that there is plenty you can do to prevent them.
Bedbugs are showing up in residences of all kinds, including apartment buildings, dormitories, and hotels, as well as in offices, retail stores, schools, theaters, and public transportation. Explanations for the resurgence of Cimex lectularius include increased international travel, changing pest control practices, resistance to pesticides, and lack of knowledge about how to control them. "But these are just speculation," says entomologist Dr. Richard Pollack. "The proper answer is, 'We don't know.'"
What we do know is that they're back after a hiatus of nearly 50 years, and it's putting people's nerves on edge. No one likes the thought of bugs invading their homes and biting them (or their children) while they sleep. And the fear of getting or giving bedbugs can lead to problems with relationships, activities, and work. Worry over bedbugs also causes insomnia and may result in actions more harmful than the bugs themselves, including the misuse of pesticides and wasteful spending on dubious detection and eradication measures.
While it's true that bedbug populations are on the rise, many reports of bedbugs are false, says Pollack, who runs a bug identification laboratory and consulting service called IdentifyUS. He says that fewer than half the specimens submitted to his laboratory as bedbugs turn out to be bedbugs. Most are common household bugs, such as carpet beetles, which are often found in bedrooms (and don't bite). Still, we shouldn't let our guard down, and the first step is to "know thy enemy."
What are they?
Bedbugs are small, flightless insects (see photograph) that feed on the blood of (usually) sleeping people and animals. During the day, they hide in dark, protected places around beds, and their flat bodies allow them to squeeze into cracks and crevices in bed frames, headboards, and box springs and to tuck themselves along the seams of mattresses. They also hide behind baseboards, under wallpaper, beneath carpet edges, and amid clutter. Bedbugs tend to gather in cozy clusters of adults and nymphs, eggs, cast-off skin, and feces.
Photo courtesy Dr. Gary Alpert, Harold Arlan, and Richard Pollack
They feed for about five to 10 minutes, then return to their hiding places to digest the blood. When they excrete the remains of their blood meals, they leave dark reddish-black spots on sheets or the mattress. Bedbugs inject an anesthetic when they feed, so a bite is unlikely to be noticeable enough to wake you. When you detect bite marks, it's hard to know if bedbugs are responsible, since their bites tend to resemble those of other insects, such as mosquitoes and fleas. (Sometimes the bites appear as a suspicious row of dots referred to as "breakfast, lunch, and dinner.")
Not everyone reacts to bites (an allergic reaction to the bedbug's saliva), but those who do may develop itchy, red welts that can become secondarily infected through scratching. Most bites don't require treatment and will heal in a week. For severe reactions, treatments include antihistamines to suppress symptoms, topical steroid drugs such as hydrocortisone, and antibiotics (if a secondary infection develops).
While bedbugs are a nuisance and can be upsetting, they aren't known to transmit disease (their biology is a little different from bloodsucking insects that do transmit disease).
Keeping them away
Bedbugs easily hitch rides in luggage, backpacks, briefcases, purses, clothing, and furniture. Here are some measures you can take to minimize the chance of bringing bedbugs into your home:
Travel precautions. When staying in a hotel, place your luggage on a table or luggage rack away from the bed and off the floor, or keep it in the bathroom. You may also want to bring along a large plastic trash bag to put your suitcase in. Don't unpack your clothes into drawers. Check mattress seams for dots of bedbug feces; if possible, inspect the headboard, bed frame, and underside of the box springs for signs of infestation. If you find anything that concerns you, discuss it with the management. Keep bed linens off the floor. Upon returning home, unpack directly into the washing machine (placed on the "hot" setting), or run your clothes in a dryer for about 20 minutes. Dry cleaning also works. Inspect and vacuum your suitcase.
Protecting your home. Used furniture is one of the biggest sources of bedbugs. If you can't resist a bargain, inspect it very carefully before bringing it home. When visiting others, hang your coat and purse on a hook or in a closet away from the bedroom. If you live in an apartment, plugging holes and cracks in walls and around pipes, baseboards, and moldings may stop bedbugs (and other pests) from invading from adjacent apartments. Place your mattress and box springs in protective mattress and box spring encasements, which eliminate bedbugs' access to their favorite hiding places. Encasements are widely available in bedding stores and on the Internet.