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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:
First let’s look at some key statistics for bed bug infestation:
Read on to learn about the bed bug’s appearance, life cycle and other important characteristics.
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:
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 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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
Before you decide to treat a bed bug infestation yourself, you should find out whether your landlord might be responsible for taking care of the problem. Through the law varies by state, sometimes landlords must pay for pest control if it’s clear that the tenant didn’t bring in the bed bugs. Landlords are often also required to notify you of any history of bed bug infestation in your unit.
21 states currently have laws on the books about landlords’ responsibilities when it comes to treating bed bugs, exterminating pests, and/or notifying tenants about potential infestations. Some laws also specify which pesticides landlords must use to treat infestations.
If you notice signs of a bed bug infestation, notify your landlord right away. They might be required to seek out an exterminator’s professional services, and to notify you in advance of any exterminators’ entry. The exterminator may be able to determine exactly when your apartment or living space became infested, which can in turn help determine who bears financial responsibility for the treatment (you or your landlord).
Research the tenants’ rights laws in your state to find out whether or not you might be able to ask your landlord to address the issue for you.
If it’s not your landlord’s responsibility to take care of the bed bugs in your living space–or if you’re not a renter–then you can treat the bed bug infestation yourself with a few techniques.
First, scour the entire building to determine which rooms are experiencing the highest rates of infestation. 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:
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:
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 bugs 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.