You might find it annoying when the person you sleep beside steals the blanket, but what about sleeping near something that steals your blood? Bedbugs are back. Many of us didn't even know they were real. They'd all but vanished from the United States after the 1950s, when saturating an infected home with DDT was a common (and quite effective) practice. But DDT has been on the no-no list for some time now. That and a steady increase in international travel are the most probable sources for the steady rise in bedbug infestation, especially in large cities, over the last 10 years or so.
Bedbugs, or Cimex lectularius, feed on humans and other animal hosts, like birds and bats, and have been around pretty much forever. These insects are called "bedbugs" because they eat primarily while their host is asleep, so the host's sleeping area (whether a bed or nest) is the most common area for the tiny insects to feed, hide, and lay their eggs in. But couches, upholstered chairs, bed frames, cracks in walls and molding, clothing, ceiling holes for light fixtures and pretty much any dark, protected area is game for bedbug housing (though they do tend to prefer wood to metal). Full-grown adults are only a quarter-inch (0.64 centimeters) long and are fairly flat, so they can slip into almost any space. The youngest ones are hardly visible to the naked eye.
The bug has an oval-shaped outer shell through which you can often see their hosts' blood as a dark spot beneath the surface. Like many other insects, they insert a syringelike "mouth" extension into the host's skin. Bedbugs will target any area of exposed skin. It can take anywhere from three to 10 minutes for the bug to fill up, and the host seldom wakes up while being bitten. Its bite is more annoying than truly harmful, as bedbugs have never been known to transmit diseases to humans. But when they pierce the skin with their beaks to draw blood, they release some of their saliva into the broken skin, and over time, repeated exposure can result in an allergic reaction to the bites. This mostly means more itchiness and swelling than you find with a typical mosquito bite, and some over-the-counter antihistamine and anti-inflammatory drugs are usually all you need to fix the discomfort. Some people don't react to the bites or saliva exposure at all.
Continue to the next page to learn how to get rid of this annoying roommate.
Getting Rid of Bedbugs
Cimex lectularius range in color from tan to orangish-brown. They have no wings; they can only crawl from surface to surface. If you find bedbugs hiding, say, behind a picture frame, they'll scurry quickly to another hiding place -- they're quick, agile and adaptable.
There are a few known possible causes of bedbug infestation, including picking up the bugs while traveling and carrying them home in or on a suitcase or clothing, or bringing in a piece of used furniture that has bedbugs already living inside it. Also, if the apartment next to you has bedbugs, any wiring holes or cracks in the walls can let them into your home, too. Adult bedbugs can live up to a year without a meal, so there's no guarantee that the new apartment you move into that's been vacant for six months will be free of the little guys. Having bedbugs isn't about filth -- bedbugs feed on blood, not trash. The most immaculate home can end up with bedbugs. However, a messy home does offer more places for bedbugs to hide, so cleaning up the clutter is one of the first steps to getting rid of a bedbug problem.
The first step is to confirm that what you have in your home are actually bedbugs. Their bites look a lot like mosquito bites, so you (or an insect-finding professional) actually need to find one of the offending bugs and compare it to a clear picture of a bedbug before you start planning for eradication. Another positive finding is rust-colored bedbug droppings and molted shells in the creases of your sheets, the seams of your mattress or wherever the bugs are calling home.
Once you know that you have bedbugs, the eradication process begins. Getting rid of bedbugs isn't simple, and you'll almost definitely want to call a professional pest killer, preferably one with experience in dealing with bedbugs. These insects are tiny and wily, and the most effective pesticides against them are no longer deemed safe, so exterminators must use a combination of less effective options in order to successfully rid your home of the little parasites. A few of the treatments for bedbugs include:
- Extended exposure to temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius)
- Heavy-duty vacuuming of all carpets, upholstered furniture and cracks in wood and molding
- Laundering affected textiles (clothing, bedding, etc.)
- Sealing an infected mattress in plastic (to suffocate the bugs)
- Using dust insecticides, which often contain ground glass or silica powder, that act as abrasives and drying agents to slowly kill the bugs
- Using contact insecticides that kill instantly, often containing pyrethroids or chlorfenapyr
- Using insecticides that damage bedbugs' ability to reproduce but don't necessarily kill them (insect growth regulators)
- Fumigating the entire structure with poisonous gas
Traditional baits and traps won't work on this type of bug, so clearing your house of the infestation will require effort. You don't necessarily have to get rid of your bed or couch if that's where they've decided to call home, since heat or suffocation might get rid of the problem. But discarding those items might be the way to go if you actually want your home free of bedbugs, not just free of live bedbugs. If you do get rid of infested furniture, don't just put it on the curb where anyone with a pickup could grab your pretty couch and end up with his or her own bedbug problem. It's best to put it in a dumpster or at least deface it in a way that will stop people from wanting to take it home.
To learn more about bedbugs and other related topics, check out the links on the next page.
There are many reasons why we study bugs, from protecting crops to preventing the spread of disease. Learn more about why we study bugs at HowStuffWorks.
- How Bug Zappers Work
- How Bats Work
- How Spiders Work
- How Allergies Work
- Would you pay $64,950 for a bed?
- How Your Immune System Works
- Can I get AIDS from a mosquito bite?
- Can bug zappers help transmit diseases?
- Why do my home and office seem to be infested with gnats in the summer? Where are they coming from?
- When you have an itch, what is happening under your skin?
- Bedbug Quiz
More Great Links
- Pollack, Richard and Gary Alpert. "Bed Bugs." School of Public Health. Harvard University. 2005. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/bedbugs/
- Potter, Michael F. "Bed Bugs." University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. Revised August 2008. http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef636.asp