“Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite!” For decades, parents have shared this peculiar little proverb with their children at tuck-in time. Naturally, most kids dismiss it as just some quaint, old-fashioned rhyme with no modern-day relevance, along the lines of “Ring around the rosie.” However, these tiny bloodsuckers continue to be a problem in the modern day and can be tough to eradicate once established.
Adult bedbugs are reddish-brown in color, oval-shaped, and approximately the size of an apple seed. Juveniles are much smaller and transparent in color—except after feeding, when they take on a bright-red coloration. Somewhat superficially similar to ticks or small cockroaches, bedbugs, when actually seen by their host, are sometimes mistaken for other insect or arachnid species. Bedbugs have vestigial wings that are incapable of flight, so they get around strictly by crawling.
Bedbugs feed by sucking the blood of humans or other animals while they sleep. They feed on exposed areas of skin, usually the face, neck, arms, and hands, leaving small, itchy welts, which are typically red in color and may have a darker red spot in the center. The bites, which cause no pain to the sleeping host, are often aligned in a row. It can be difficult to discern bedbug bites from a skin rash or the bites of mosquitoes, fleas, or other biting insects.
Reactions to bedbug bites vary considerably, as well. Some people seem to have no reaction whatsoever—and, in fact, may not even notice that they’ve been bitten—while others may have an allergic response with symptoms such as severe itching, hives, or blisters. It’s also important to note that scratching affected areas on the skin can lead to secondary bacterial infection, warranting medical treatment.
Bedbugs tend to get a foothold in places where many people share close quarters or where there is a frequent turnover of nighttime occupants, such as hotels, motels, hostels, dormitories, apartment complexes, military barracks, hospitals, and homeless shelters. Contrary to popular misconception, bedbug infestations are not limited to dirty or unsanitary environments. Even the most meticulously maintained facility can harbor bedbugs as long as there is a warm-bodied host to feed on and there are places to hide.
Bedbugs like to stay in close proximity to their hosts, so when they aren’t feeding, they drop off and take refuge in nearby nooks and crannies, such as in the mattress, box springs, bed frame, drapery, carpeting, or other upholstered furniture. They’ll even refuge under peeling wallpaper or paint, behind light switches or in electrical outlets, under carpet tack strips, in window or door frames, behind baseboards, behind pictures or other wall hangings, in stuffed animals, or in virtually any other crack or crevice in the vicinity. If you happen to be spending the night in an infested hotel or motel, you might accidentally bring bedbugs home with you aboard your luggage or other belongings.
Owing to their diminutive size and nocturnal nature, bedbugs aren’t always easy to spot. In addition to telltale bites on the skin, common signs of their presence include rust-colored or dark specks (their excrement) on the mattress, bed linens, or walls; bloody smears on the sheets from crushed bedbugs; and molted exoskeletons near hiding places. If the infestation is severe, you might also notice an offensive sweet, musty odor, which is produced by the bedbugs’ scent glands.
To avoid introducing bedbugs to your home, be very cautious about bringing in secondhand beds (mattresses, bedsprings, frames, etc.), bedding, furniture, or clothing. If you do, inspect it thoroughly for evidence of an infestation. Suspect clothes, bed linens, curtains, drapes, or similar items should be laundered thoroughly in hot water (a minimum of 120 degrees Fahrenheit) to kill any stowaway bedbugs. Placing garments or fabrics in the clothes dryer at medium to high heat for a minimum of 20 minutes will also kill bedbugs and their eggs. When traveling and staying in hotels, motels, or similar lodging, inspect the bed and surrounding areas for telltale signs or the bugs themselves and be sure to store your suitcases on an elevated surface, such as a rack, table, or dresser, not on the floor. Before leaving, double check your luggage and its contents carefully. Once you get home, launder your clothing at the hottest recommended water temperature for the fabric and dry it at the highest recommended setting. Also, since some bedbug species will feed on other animals, such as birds and bats, as well as humans, it’s important to seal off any points of access to your residence that wild animals could potentially exploit.
If you suspect your home has become infested with bedbugs, your best bet is to contact a qualified pest-management professional. Bedbugs can be extremely difficult to control once they get a foothold, and homeowners’ efforts to eradicate them on their own often yield unsatisfactory results. A qualified professional will utilize an integrated approach that is both safe for you and your family and effective against these resilient parasites.