Introduction: Bed bugs are not a new phenomenon.

From The New York Times to USA Today, bed bugs have been making headlines across the U.S. One in five Americans in 2011 faced a bed bug infestation or knew someone who had encountered bed bugs in their home or while traveling, according to a National Pest Management Association survey. But while bed bug occurrences and publicity have increased in recent years, they are not a new phenomenon. Before reporters were writing about them, Aristotle was.

They have been around since ancient times, evidenced by their mention in medieval European texts and classical Greek writings. What is it about this bug that captures people’s attention? Bed bugs are horrendous little bugs that feed on human blood. And they can be anywhere.

In recent months, bed bugs have been found in libraries, movie theaters, public transportation, schools, hospitals and other public places around the nation. Harder to control than fleas, German roaches and most other pests, bed bugs win the award for least desirable insect to encounter. Not only are they difficult to get rid of, but they often cause paranoia and mental distress for those who have them in their homes. It can be hard to sleep soundly when you know you are being bitten by a miniature monster. And, no one wants to deal with bites that can become red, itchy and swollen.

Here is a complete guide where you’ll find everything you didn’t know you ever wanted to know about bed bugs. We’ll dig into what they look like, how to treat them, how to prevent them, and more, and point you to additional resources for more information.

Jump To Chapter 1

Bed bugs have recently become much more common. Credit: Alex Wild

Bed bugs, nymphs, eggs and feces are all attached on the boxspring. Credit: Louento

Chapter 1: What are bed bugs?

Bed bugs are small hitchhiking insects about the size of an apple seed that feast on human blood. They are flattened, oval-shaped brownish creatures that are about 3/16” long as adults. While the common bed bug (Cimex lectularius) prefers feeding on humans, it may also feed on dogs, cats, rodents and other warm-blooded animals.

Bed bugs don’t fly or jump, but they’re fast crawlers. They can scurry across floors, walls, ceilings and other surfaces as quickly as ants. Adult females lay eggs in secluded spots. They typically lay one or two eggs per day, meaning hundreds in a lifetime. About a week later, a new generation of bed bugs hatches. And when they grow, they shed their skin five times before becoming adults.Eggs are whitish, sticky, and the size of a dust spec.

Immature bed bugs (nymphs) are smaller and lighter in color than their parents. Bed bugs can go about a year without feeding in favorable conditions, but they tend to go after blood every five to ten days. They are drawn to warmth and carbon dioxide. They are mostly active at night and hide during the day, usually in places close to where people sleep. Bed bugs can fit into tiny crevices and tend to gather together in the same spot when they hide. These places can often be identified because of dark staining from dried bug excrement. You might also see eggs, the skin shed by nymphs and reddish spots where bed bugs who have recently fed were squashed.

Further Reading:

Pest World, “Bed Bug Biology”

Purdue University, Medical Entomology, “Bed Bugs”

Jump To Chapter 2

Chapter 2: How do they feed?

Bed bugs typically feed at night, but if they are really hungry, they can find you during the day. They pierce the skin, which becomes numb because of their saliva, and withdraw blood through piercing, sucking mouthparts called a beak. Bed bugs typically bite on any exposed skin while you’re sleeping, such as your face, back, neck, shoulders, arms and legs.

They usually leave after feeding to a reclusive spot to digest. Some people may notice a red, itchy welt within about a day of the bite. But, studies have shown that about thirty percent of people do not react to bed bug bites. This means people can have them and not even know it for a long time -- allowing infestations to become quite large before being discovered. It also means one spouse can be noticeably bitten while the other doesn’t have any outward signs of being bitten.

Further Reading:

University of Minnesota Extension, “Prevention and control of bed bugs in residences”

University of California Integrated Pest Management, “Bed Bugs””

Jump To Chapter 3

An adult bed bug feeds on a finger. Credit: Louento

A close-up picture of shed skins of fifth instar bed bug nymphs. Credit: Louento

Chapter 3: Why are they such a problem right now?

People have speculated about the recurrence of bed bugs in the last two decades. Some experts note the rise in travel and the increasing resistance by bed bugs to common insecticides. With the use of DDT after World War II through the 1970s, bed bugs were mostly extinguished from the western world, but they began to reemerge in the late 1990s.

While many people think bed bugs are only a problem in unclean conditions, bed bugs do not discriminate and nobody is immune to them. They are not only in motels, but in four-star resorts. They can inflict their presence upon the most immaculate home. Single-family units, multi-family units, clean, messy - it doesn’t matter.

Bed bugs just want blood, and they’ll hop into your purse, coat, hat or other vehicle and catch a ride with you to whatever buffet awaits them. They’re the insect version of party hoppers. So, what can you do to prevent these creatures from making themselves at home in your covers, mattresses and baseboards?

Further Reading:

Smithsonian.com, “How our Modern Lives Became Infested with Bed Bugs?”

BBC, “Will we ever get rid of bed bugs?”

Michael Potter, “The History of Bed Bug Management - With Lessons from the Past”

Jump To Chapter 4

Chapter 4: How do I prevent them in daily life?

Public places: Mass transport, libraries, theaters, etc.

Bed bugs were reported to be found on the New York City subway in August 2014. If you can avoid sitting down while in mass transportation, do so. If you can’t, you might want to glance at your seat before getting comfortable.

The critters have also been found in libraries, theaters, schools and other public places. Being aware of the possibility of bed bugs is a good first step in prevention.

Here are some tips:

  • Keep your shoes and outerwear in a coat closet away from your bedroom if possible and your purses as well. Avoid placing your jacket, hat, purse or briefcase on your bed.
  • Inspect your outerwear often and keep it in a coat closet.

Used furniture

Be weary about used mattresses and furniture and do a complete inspection before bringing these items into your home. If you see furniture outside by a dumpster, there is probably a good reason for it! If everyone marked the items they’ve tossed away because of bed bugs with a sign, it would certainly help stop the spread of bed bugs.

Always inspect items at yard sales and garage sales before purchasing. Assume that every piece of furniture that someone else tossed out has bed bugs.

Other things that can help

These tips can help you notice bed bugs if you ever bring them into your home as well as decrease the number of places where they can hide.

  • Choose furniture wisely. For instance, a metal chair has fewer hiding spots for bed bugs than a wicker one.
  • Purchase light-colored bedding that allows you to easily see blood spots and bugs.
  • Reduce clutter anywhere near the bed and avoid storing things under beds.
  • Use bed-bug proof encasements for your mattress and box springs. These have no piping and make it easier for you to notice bed bugs.
  • Vacuum regularly and use an attachment for cracks and crevices.
  • Fix wallpaper that is peeling.
  • Seal any cracks in wooden floors.
  • Keep your bedroom and living room furniture from touching the walls.
  • Keep bedding from touching the floor.
  • Use a metal bed frame instead of wood. Bed bugs prefer wood and fabric over metal or plastic.
  • Upholstered chairs, recliners and sofas should be meticulously examined often.
  • Other common hiding places include baseboards, cracks in wood molding, behind mirrors, outlets and switch plates, under loose wallpaper, inside clocks, televisions and smoke detectors and more.

Further Reading:

Illinois Department of Public Health, “Bed Bugs in Schools and Daycare Centers”

Virginia Tech Department of Entomology, “Bed Bug Prevention Methods”

Jump To Chapter 5

Bed bugs have been sighted in many high-traffic public places, including the New York City subway system. Credit: Diego Torres Silvestre

There are several preventative measures you should take when traveling and staying at a hotel. Credit: Frankieleon

Chapter 5: How do I prevent them while traveling?

Anytime you leave your home, you are susceptible to bed bugs. But, traveling, whether in the U.S. or abroad, leaves you even more vulnerable.

Taxi cabs, trains and planes are all ideal locales for bed bugs because of all the people and luggage they come into contact with. Just think for a second about the overhead compartments in a plane and all those bags and suitcases in close quarters. If just one adult, female, pregnant bed bug makes her way into your luggage, you could bring home the start of an infestation.

Hotels

Staying in a hotel with bed bugs can ruin even the most well-planned of trips. Don’t wait until you have bites to think there could be a problem. Be proactive when staying at a hotel or vacation rental property.

Here’s how to inspect a room. You can do this on your own, but it helps to have someone else. Before you complete the inspection, leave your luggage in the hall or the bathroom (where bed bugs are not very likely). Use gloves and a flashlight.

  • Look through the covers and the sheets of the bed. If you see blood spots, those could be signs of bed bugs.
  • Strip the bedding and inspect the mattress and boxspring. Run a finger around the seams and edges and look carefully for feces, eggs, molten skin or bed bugs. Adult bed bugs can be hiding in any crack or crevice where a credit card edge could fit into.
  • Shine the flashlight around the headboard and the nightstand and anywhere else they could be hiding. They can even hide behind art work or frames hanging from the wall. Inspect all cracks and crevices.
  • Check any couches, dressers, desks and other furniture.
  • Inspect luggage racks before using them and keep luggage off the floor. Avoid storing clothes in dressers for further protection. Hang business suits and dresses on shower rail.
  • Never place luggage on the bed.

Here are more tips:

  • Check the Bed Bug Registry before you book a hotel.
  • Use freezer-size plastic bags for your clothing to further prevent bed bugs from getting into your luggage.
  • Use hard-bodied luggage instead of soft-bodied, which has more crevices for bed bugs to hide in.
  • When you return home, inspect and vacuum your luggage before storing it. If possible, store luggage in the garage.
  • Upon returning home, empty your luggage in the garage or laundry room and wash and dry all your clothes on the hottest setting.
  • Use clear sandwich bags for small items. These make it easier than fabric containers to see if anything has crawled into your belongings.
  • Remember that bed bugs are unlikely to travel on you or your clothes because of how often humans move. They are more likely to hitchhike on luggage, backpacks and furniture.

Further Reading:

Scherzinger Termite and Pest Control, “How to Avoid Bringing Bed Bugs Home When Traveling”

Bedbugger.com, “How to avoid bed bugs while traveling”

Jump To Chapter 6

Chapter 6: What do I do if I think I have bed bugs?

The ONLY way to know for sure if you have bed bugs is to capture evidence: feces, molten skin, or the actual bug itself.

Some people do not react to bed bug bites. Even those who do may have another problem that is causing the reaction, instead of bed bug bites. Some reactions can look and feel like mosquito or flea bites. And there’s a myth that bed bugs bite in threes but that’s not true. Single bites can occur.

If you think you have bed bugs, you can do a complete inspection, similar to the one you would do in a hotel room, but even more comprehensive.

If you do find the bug, store it in a small container (pill bottle, vial, plastic bag) and compare it with pictures on credible sites on the internet, and with the pictures on this guide.

If you find something or you don’t find anything but continue to experience bites, contact a professional pest control company. Pest control operators should complete a detailed inspection. They may bring in bed bug detection dogs, which have been shown to be effective when properly trained. They can be especially helpful for finding small infestations in office buildings, libraries, schools and similar places. Make sure that a detection dog and handler are accredited.

Also, if you think you have bed bugs, do not go sleep in another room. They need you for food, so if you leave, they will follow you into another room - making an infestation worse. If you react very negatively to bed bug bites, see if someone else will sleep in the bed.

There is some good news. While bed bugs can carry several pathogens, transmitting them to humans is unlikely, according to experts. However, many people become stressed from living with bed bugs and (understandably) have difficulty sleeping.

Further Reading:

The Atlantic, “Bed-Bug Madness: The Psychological Toll of the Blood Suckers”

Bed Bug Central, “Early Detection Tools and Methods”

Jump To Chapter 7

Bed bugs, eggs (white) and fecal drops (black) on a mattress. Credit: Louento

First, second and third instar nymphs on a sheet of ¼-inch graph paper. A few eggs as well as fecal waste can also be seen. Credit: Louento

Chapter 7: How do I prepare for treatment?

A bed bug infestation is a huge challenge to overcome by yourself. It’s critical to call in a pest control operator who can use all the resources at his or her disposal to comprehensively and effectively eradicate bed bugs.

It often takes more than one application by a pest control operator. Typically, a second treatment 7-14 days after the first is required. Bed bug eggs hatch after about two weeks.

And, if you live in an apartment building, it will also be necessary to inspect the adjoining apartments, because bed bugs can spread throughout a building.

Even when you do call a pest control operator, some of the work will be on you. Here are some of the tasks the operator may ask of you:

  • Don’t move your belongings during or before treatment unless you know they aren’t infested. You could spread bed bugs elsewhere and then re-infest your home.
  • Wash all bedding in hot water and put it in the dryer on high. Place these items in trash bags and isolate them from infested items. Most garments that are marked “dry-clean only” will be fine if placed in the dryer while dry and at a moderate temperature setting. Bed bugs in all stages will die after some time in 120 degree temperature.
  • Carefully inspect items like books, electronics, toys and picture frames.
  • Store cleaned and dried items in plastic bags until the home has been treated successfully for bed bugs.
  • Vacuum floors, mattress, box spring, couches, chairs and other furnishings. Pull back dust covers and vacuum those areas as well. Double-bag and discard of vacuum bags in trash cans outside.
  • Reduce clutter and throw away unnecessary items. Bed bugs can hide anywhere, so clutter makes a home more difficult to inspect and treat.
  • Don’t leave items and furniture out in the sun to kill bed bugs. Heat needs to be evenly distributed through the entire item.
  • If you have pets, groom them outside to make sure bugs are not caught in their hair. Inspect and wash and dry on high heat all of the pets’ bedding and cage items.
  • Don’t throw away a bug-infested mattress. Bed bugs may still be in your home because they hide in so many other places as well.
  • Use bed-bug proof encasements for your mattress and box springs. These are designed to trap any bed bugs in all life stages inside. These should die in a year and a half without food. Make sure you keep the encasements on for that long.
  • Use interceptor cups for your bed posts. These are special containers that prevent bed bugs from climbing on to your bed. You can also check the traps weekly to see how well your bed bug control methods are going. Here’s a video from The University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to help you make your own.

Further Reading:

About, “12 Steps to Prepare for Bed Bug Service”

American Pest, “Bed Bug Preparation Sheet”

Jump To Chapter 8

Chapter 8: What are the different types of treatment?

Professionally applied insecticides

Pest control operators will likely use insecticides to combat a bed bug infestation. Licensed pest control operators know which products and how much of each should be used. They may use insecticidal dusts, such as finely ground silica powder which causes an insect to dry out and die, or contact insecticides which kill the bugs once they encounter the product. Professionals may also use insect growth regulators, which interferes with bed bugs’ development and reproduction.

Pros: Pest control operators who are licensed and experienced will use a combination of resources and tactics to effectively wipe out bed bugs.

Cons: Some people are concerned about the materials applied during bed bug treatments in their homes. Material Safety Data Sheets are available online for the active ingredients for the products used. More information can also be found on the National Pesticide Information Center website. Insecticides can be dangerous if applied improperly or not according to label directions. Most bed bugs are somewhat resistant to pyrethroid sprays, which are longer lasting pesticides.

Heat treatment

Some pest control companies use heat treatment: sealing and heating all infected items or sometimes, the complete living area for several hours to temperatures exceeding 120 degrees.

Pros: Prolonged exposure of bed bugs to 120 degree temperatures kills them in all life stages.

Cons: The temperature must be maintained for the whole hour at every point in the room. The heat could also damage your belongings.

Do-it-yourself

Some people decide to handle their bed bug infestation on their own, using over-the-counter insecticides and other materials. Diatomaceous earth (DE) dust for insect control dries out bed bugs when they encounter it. This dust can be found in hardware stores or garden centers.

We encourage you not to apply over-the-counter insecticides yourself unless you have a pesticide applicator’s license. If you do and your treatment doesn’t work and you call a pest control operator, more insecticides will be used and bed bugs might be hiding in new places.This could end up making treatment more difficult for professionals. Some people also consider leaving their mattress and other items in the sun if the infestation occurs in the summer months. But the heat needs to evenly touch the items and there isn’t a guarantee that the temperature is hot enough.

Pros: Bed bug treatments can be very expensive and many people search for cheaper treatments they can complete on their own.

Cons: If you apply your own insecticides and you don’t completely fix your infestation, you could drive bed bugs to new hiding places, making treatment harder for professionals. Contact sprays only kill bed bugs on contact and have no residual effect. Alcohol sprays do not kill eggs, and are flammable.

Further Reading:

Virginia Tech Department of Entomology, “Bed Bug Treatment Using Insecticides”

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, “Bed Bugs: Do-it-yourself control options”

Jump To Chapter 9

A first instar nymph feeds on a finger. Credit: Louento

A pile of shed skins and bugs from a bed bug rearing jar. Bed bugs may live in shed skin piles as well as mattresses, furniture, etc. Credit: Louento

Chapter 9: What if I live in an apartment or condominium?

There often isn’t a definite answer for who is responsible for a bed bug infestation. Whether the landlord or tenant is responsible for bed bug treatment varies based on the situation. Contact your local health department and law offices for help with legal questions. Know that a bed bug infestation will not resolve itself. If you are in an apartment building, it would be a good idea to inform management. Bed bugs can spread through walls and infect another apartment. Adjoining apartments next to and above and below the infected unit are particularly likely to also become infested or to already be infested.

Further Reading:

Pest World, “Laws on Bed Bugs by State”

National Conference of State Legislatures, “State BedBug Laws”

Bedbugger.com, “Does the landlord or tenant pay for bed bug treatment?”

Conclusion

Conclusion

There are two camps in the world: those who have dealt with bed bugs before, and those who haven’t.

Those who have experienced bed bugs often employ preventative measures, such as inspecting hotels while traveling to avoid bringing the bugs home. But, many people who haven’t encountered bed bugs are unaware that they are a massive problem today. Make sure you understand bed bug biology, behavior and the best ways to prevent an infestation and spread the word to your family and friends.

Recent Blog Posts

Case Study: Which Fruit Fly Trap Works Best?

We tested some of the most popular fruit fly traps circulating the Internet. Find out which ones worked best.

Pest Controls Tips and Secrets from 117 Experts

This is the most comprehensive list of pest control tips on the web.

Everything You Need to Know About Termites

Termites are a homeowner's worst nightmare. In Part 1 of this three-part series, we give you all the basics.

Share Your Thoughts