Bed bugs are one of the most prevalent pests in the world. Bed bug cases have been reported in virtually every region on earth, including all 50 U.S. states. Although their numbers fell into decline during the mid-20th century, a resurgence of bed bug infestations began in the 1980s and has largely continued to this day. Some experts believe the resurgence is largely due to a worldwide spike in overseas travel, while others theorize that the animals have become resistant to the pesticides once used to control them. And because bed bugs are both adaptable to new surroundings and difficult to properly exterminate, they spread quickly and easily from place to place. This comprehensive guide will cover the fundamental areas of bed bug prevention and control. Topics of discussion include:
The biological and behavioral traits of bed bugs
Ways to identify the presence of adult bed bugs, eggs and bed bug habitats
Effective methods to keep bed bugs from entering your home and/or property
Preventative measures you can take to ensure bed bugs don’t follow you home after a trip
DIY techniques for bed bug extermination
Common insecticides used to control bed bug populations
Online guides, registries and other bed-bug-related resources
First let’s look at some key statistics for bed bug infestation:
Bed bugs can survive in temperatures ranging from freezing to as high as 116 degrees Fahrenheit.
Bed bugs can consume as much as seven times their own bodyweight in human blood during one feeding session.
Although they usually remain near sleeping human hosts, adult bed bugs will travel up to 100 feet in search of food.
A recent survey polled Americans in different parts of the country about bed bug encounters. The South led all regions, with 34% of respondents reporting an encounter with bed bugs. The Northeast placed second with 26%, followed by the Midwest with 22% and the West with 18%.
According to the 2014 ‘Bed Bugs Cities List’ by Orkin Pest Control, the leading U.S. city for bed bug treatments is Chicago, Ill. Other cities with high treatment numbers include: Detroit, Mich.; Columbus, Ohio; Los Angeles, Calif.; Cleveland-Akron-Canton, Ohio; Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Denver, Colo.
Read on to learn about the bed bug’s appearance, life cycle and other important characteristics.
What Are Bed Bugs?
The bed bug, or Cimex lectularius, is a parasitic insect that belongs to the cimicid family. Bed bugs are barely visible to the naked eye; most measure no more than 6 mm in length. Key identifiers include:
A mottled, red-brown color
Flat, ovoid shape
Relatively small wings compared to body size
Human blood is the bed bug’s sole food source, and they primarily seek out human hosts through two attractants: body heat and the carbon dioxide of our breath. Although pets and other animals may carry bed bugs, they will only bite humans. Bed bugs are nocturnal eaters, and will rarely bite humans during the day. Each bite will produce a small red lump, along with a severe itch that may linger for several days. However, numerous studies have concluded that bed bugs do not transmit any blood-borne pathogens between human hosts.
The life cycle of a bed bug consists of seven stages, beginning with the egg. Most bed bug eggs hatch after seven to 10 days. The next five life stages, known as instars, involve gradual growth to adult size. In order to progress to each instar, the immature bed bug must feed on human blood and shed its skin, or ‘molt’. Bed bugs reach adulthood after the fifth instar is completed. From the time eggs are laid, the average bed bug will reach full maturity after 37 days. Bed bugs usually feed once or twice a week. However, they can live for up to three months at room temperature without feeding on a human host, and studies have found they survive for even longer in colder environments.
Now that we’ve identified what bed bugs look like and how they behave, let’s tackle effective bed bug prevention.
Bed Bug Prevention
Bed bug infestation typically begins with immature females or adult males that enter a new area in search of food. If human hosts are located, then more bed bugs will follow. This is known as ‘introduction’. Infestation is usually triggered as soon as the bed bugs reproduce and females are able to lay eggs throughout their new home.
Bed bugs are drawn to tight, enclosed spaces, such as cracks in floors and walls, closets and the undersides of mattresses. Places where they dwell and breed are known as ‘harborage areas’. According to PestWorld’s 2015 ‘Bugs Without Borders‘ survey, 99.6% of pest professionals say they responded to at least one bed bug complaint that year. Respondents noted that they are most likely to detect bed bugs in the following environments:
Apartments and condominiums
Hotels and motels
Nursing homes and care facilities
College campus housing
Hospitals and clinics
Buses, taxis and other forms of public transportation
Recognizing evidence of bed bug infestation is crucial for controlling and exterminating these resilient pests. According to the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), warning signs of an active bed bug presence include:
Live bed bugs
Unhatched bed bug eggs, which are small white encasements roughly 1mm in length
Molted skins cast off during the instar stages, which are usually fragmented with a translucent appearance
Fecal stains on bedsheets, carpet and other surfaces located near the primary harborage area(s)
Bed bug bites leave raised, red bumps on the skin that produce a severe itch for several days.
Many people use bite marks to identify bed bugs, as well. However, the NPMA notes that many insects and other pests cause bites similar to that of a bed bug. Those who suspect a bed bug infestation based on bites should also look for the other warning signs listed above.
In many cases, travelers unwittingly transport bed bugs after returning from a trip. Overnight stays in hotels, motels and other lodgings have also been linked to bed bug introduction. Travelers should carefully check their shoes, luggage and other personal items for bed bug warning signs before bringing them into their home. They should also wash all clothing and dry in a hot setting for at least 30 minutes. Those traveling within the U.S. can take an extra precaution by visiting the Bed Bug Registry prior to their trip; this database features every recent bed bug complaint at hotels, motels and other lodging accommodations across the country.
Other common sources of bed bugs include used clothing and furniture. Any used items should be inspected before they are purchased. As an added precaution, wash all used clothes and dry them on a hot setting before wearing them for the first time; avoid trying on used garments in stores, if possible.
Many preventive techniques can be used to curb the introduction and/or spread of bed bugs. Home and property owners are encouraged to exercise the following precautions:
Mend all cracks, fissures and other openings in the walls and flooring that often serve as bed bug harborage areas.
Seal windows, baseboards and other points of entry bed bugs may use.
Regularly wash and dry all sheets, pillowcases and other bed linens. Also check mattress seams and grooves for bed bug warning signs on a consistent basis.
While on the road, it’s important to keep personal items off of hotel and motel floors; be sure to utilize luggage racks and closet hangers for all clothing.
Tidy up cluttered areas around the house. If possible, refrain from storing anything under beds.
Finally, the NPIC discourages the use of pesticides as a bed bug prevention method. Studies have found that residues and other substances are not effective deterrents; pesticides must be sprayed directly onto live bed bugs in order to exterminate them. Read more about pesticide treatments and other tried-and-true methods of bed bug eradication in the next section.
How to Get Rid of Bed Bugs
Live insects and fecal stains on mattress surfaces are two telltale signs of a bed bug infestation.
Let’s say you have detected multiple bed bug warning signs, and believe an infestation has been established in your home. First: take a deep breath. There are several effective techniques for exterminating bed bug populations and restoring your home to a pest-free environment. Also, avoid throwing away your mattress and bedding, furniture and other household items that may serve as harborage areas. These belongings can be quite expensive to replace, and complete disposal will be unnecessary as long as you use proper extermination methods.
Next, scour the entire building to determine which rooms are experiencing the highest rates of infestation. First check bedrooms, living room sofa beds and any other places where people sleep. Once the primary harborage areas have been located, you can attempt to exterminate your homegrown bed bug populations using these do-it-yourself methods:
Strip your mattresses, box springs and sofa bed cushions. Use a brush or comb to remove bed bugs and eggs, and then run a vacuum over each surface until all bed bugs, eggs, skin casings and other remnants are gone. Then take the vacuum outside and dispose of the bag.
Place all sheets, pillowcases, bed linens, curtains and clothing in a plastic trash bag, and then contain this in a second trash bag. Also include bedding materials for any pets in the house. Take these items directly to a washer. Wash them in hot water, and then dry on the highest temperature setting. Be sure to throw away the inner bag once the items are in the washer.
Non-washable items also need to be treated. These include shoes, stuffed animals, pet toys, backpacks, sleeping bags, purses and pillows. Heat treatment is the most effective method for these items. For best results, bag all items in a dryer-safe bag and dry on the hottest setting for at least 30 minutes. Placing bagged, non-washable items in direct sunlight will also be effective in places where temperatures reach at least 80 to 90 degrees. Extreme cold may also take care of bed bugs. Storing these items in a freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius) for eight to 10 hours will kill off most remaining bed bugs and eggs.
Obtain a ‘bed-bug-proof encasement’ for all mattresses and box springs in the house. Encasements are plastic sacks that fit snugly over an entire mattress, with a tight zipper designed to prevent even immature bed bugs from getting out. Encasements are also thick enough to prevent bed bugs from biting you through the material. Bed-bug-proof encasements are widely available through retail outlets like Wal-Mart, Target and Amazon.com.
After the mattresses and bedding have been secured, vacuum all carpets and rugs in the home. Steam treatment is also highly recommended.
Rubbing alcohol can be used to kill bed bugs on contact. Apply some alcohol to a Q-Tip and wipe out any stray bugs you come across after the mattresses, bedding and carpets have been cleaned.
Responsibly dispose of any mattresses, box springs, furniture and other items that cannot be salvaged. Strip all covers, filling and fabric upholstery. For small items, be sure to mark them with a bed bug warning in spray paint before discarding in a dumpster. For large items, consider enlisting in the services of a junk removal, curbside trash pickup or mattress recycling service. You may also be able to deposit your infested items at the local dump or transfer station.
If your entire home is infested, your best option for dealing with bed bugs will involve the assistance of a pest control specialist. Professional services may also be required for those living in rental units, since other residents may also be at risk; any apartment tenants with bed bug concerns should contact their landlord immediately.
The cost of bed bug extermination will usually vary from $500 to $1,500; treatment often includes an in-home consultation and full inspection. Some bed bug specialists have also embraced the less conventional method of canine bed bug detection. Dogs can be trained to find the scent of bed bugs; according to Bed Bug General, there are more than 100 bed bug canines working in the U.S. today.
Several insecticide treatments for bed bugs are available. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has registered more than 300 chemical products used to exterminate bed bug populations. These materials fall into seven general classifications:
Pyrethrins and pyrethroids are most commonly used insecticide in bed bug control, usually taking the form of a spray. Botanical-based pyrethrins are synthesized from the chrysanthemum flower, while pyrethroids are chemical-based agents that essentially perform the same function. They are quick-acting and long-lasting.
Desiccants essentially dissolve bed bugs by eroding their outer shell, which causes them to die of dehydration. Desiccants may pose a toxicity hazard to humans, so it’s important to heed EPA guidelines for different products. Some of the most popular desiccants include diatomaceous earth, boric acid and silica gel.
Currently, cold-pressed neem oil is the only biochemical registered by the EPA to combat bed bugs. This oil is extracted from seeds of the tropical neem tree, and has proven effective at eradicating bed bugs and eggs.
Neonicotinoids are derived from tobacco. They kill bed bugs by triggering their nicotinic receptors and causing their nervous systems to crash. Neonicotinoids may be effective in controlling bed bug populations that do not respond to other forms of insecticide.
Insect growth regulators infiltrate a bed bug’s body by weakening their outer shell and stunting maturity. As a result, most bed bugs that have been treated with growth regulators will die before reaching adulthood.
A wide range of products on the market are used to kill bed bugs. The table to the right features the most widely used bed bug extermination products, as reported by pest control specialists that responded to the Bugs Without Borders survey.
Fumigation is often used as a last-resort method of bed bug control. Full ‘structure and chamber fumigation’ will kill off all remaining bed bugs; only licensed pest control specialists should facilitate this procedure. In addition to chemical fumigation, heat treatment may be used to get rid of bed bug infestations. This method involves raising temperatures throughout a home or building. The ‘kill zone’ for bed begs is at least 117 degrees Fahrenheit, but some heat treatments raise temperatures up to 135 or 140 degrees; these temperatures should be constantly maintained for at least 45 minutes. Eventually the heat will enter cracks, crevices and other areas where bed bugs thrive. Heat sensors placed in different rooms will monitor the temperature, and also ensure proper airflow. Like fumigation, this method is somewhat expensive and should only be administered by professionals.
Once the infestation has been contained and all bed bugs have been killed, you must monitor your home to ensure the little pests do not return. Check mattress and box spring encasements on a regular basis, and use alcohol to kill any lingering bed bugs you encounter. Also consider installing some interceptor traps throughout your home. These shallow, cup-shaped devices are placed beneath all bed posts and furniture legs; since these features are usually slippery, the interceptor will act as an inescapable moat for bed bugs that slip and fall. Glue traps may be useful, as well. These devices can be placed in dark areas of the bedroom, as well as spaces behind pictures, furniture and bed headboards. If your encasements, interceptor traps and glue traps are mostly bug-free, then your infestation has probably been controlled; if a large number of bed bugs still appear, then you may want to consider another inspection and chemical treatment.
According to the Bugs Without Borders survey, pest specialists conduct an average of 2.6 home visits before bed bugs can be fully exterminated with insecticide treatment. Comparatively, 1.3 visits are needed to kill bed bugs using heat-based methods.
Misconceptions About Bed Bugs
Now that we’ve covered important information about identifying, preventing and getting rid of bed bugs, let’s address some common myths about the little bloodsucker.
MYTH: Bed bugs are only found in dirty places.
While clutter and unsanitary conditions may contribute to bed bug infestation, the animals can thrive anywhere.
MYTH: Bed bugs won’t leave the bedroom.
Bed bugs may be initially drawn to mattresses and box springs, but they will quickly spread to other areas of a house without proper treatment.
MYTH: Bed bugs hate light, so keeping the light on while I sleep will prevent them from biting me.
While bed bugs are nocturnal, most studies have shown that artificial light is not effective as a deterrent to nighttime bed bug bites.
MYTH: Bed bugs can make me sick.
Bed bug bites are painful and itchy, no question. But leading scientific experts have concluded that the animals do not spread any diseases, nor can they transmit blood-borne pathogens between human hosts.
MYTH: My pet could get sick from bed bug bites.
Dogs, cats and other animals may transport bed bugs into different rooms and areas of a house. However, bed bugs only bite human hosts.
MYTH: If I spray enough pesticide in my house, then I’ll keep the bed bugs away.
Bed bugs are resistant to most store-bought pesticides, including sprays and residues. Additionally, many pesticides can cause harmful health effects and should not be used in large quantities inside one’s home.
MYTH: Bed bugs have infested my mattress, so it’s time to throw out my bed.
Most mattresses, box springs and other furniture can be fully treated for bed bugs and restored to pristine condition. Only throw out your belongings if multiple treatments prove ineffective.
MYTH: I shouldn’t use insecticides without the assistance of a pest control specialist.
It is important to research the use, potential health effects and EPA regulations for different bed bug treatment products. However, most are available for private use and will not cause serious problems if properly administered.
MYTH: Fumigation is the only sure-fire way to get rid of bed bugs.
Fumigation is highly effective for controlling bed bug populations, but this method should only be used as a last resort for extermination.
MYTH: Bed bugs won’t return after an insecticide treatment.
While effective treatments will reduce the likelihood of repeat bed bug visits, it’s very important to monitor your bed, furniture and other areas of the house to ensure they’re gone for good.
Online Bed Bug Resources
Our final section features a selection of how-to-guides, video tutorials and other online resources to help you learn more about prevention, extermination and other bed-bug-related issues.
Bed Bug Registry: Make sure you don’t have reservations at a bed bug infestation site with this comprehensive list of all lodging accommodations in the U.S. that have been linked to bed bug encounters.
Additional laws may apply to landlords, property owners and hotel operators in certain cities and states. Please refer to this database of state bed bug laws maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures, as well as any local regulations regarding bed bug infestation and termination.
Resources for Public Sector Employees
Bugs in Healthcare Settings: This report from Medscape tackles protocols and strategies for bed bug prevention in hospitals, clinics and other healthcare facilities.
Day Care Center Bed Bug Tips: This post from domyownpestcontrol.com discusses effective prevention strategies and DIY techniques in preschool and daycare settings.
Bed Bug Action Plan for Shelters: This bed bug guide for homeless shelter managers and employees comes from the agriculture and consumer sciences branch of Virginia Tech University.
For more specific information on bed bug regulations and stipulations for healthcare workers, educators and other public sector professionals, please visit the website for your state’s Department of Health.