Bed bugs are spreading across the world, turning up in hotels and private homes. Learn what bed bugs look like and how to get rid of them.
Nobody wants to have tiny creatures suck their blood as they sleep. But it happens.
While this scenario sounds like a horror movie plot, it’s real. The culprits are bed bugs and, while their bites aren’t as scary as a movie monster’s, they can be extremely annoying and sometimes have unhealthy consequences.
Learning what bed bugs look like and how to get rid of them is important because the insects are becoming more common.
Entomologists call these tiny, flat parasites Cimex lectularius. To the rest of us, they are bed bugs, creatures you may assume live only in dirty, unsanitary places. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the presence of theses insects is not determined by the cleanliness of places where they are found. In fact, bed bugs have turned up in five star hotels and luxury resorts, the CDC reports.
How do you get bed bugs?
Wherever infestations occur, there is usually one common denominator. Bed bugs are found around or near areas where people sleep — whether in private homes, public shelters, rooming houses, dorm rooms, cruise ships and even on commuter trains and buses. The miniscule creatures hide out during the day in places where they often go undetected, like the seams of mattresses and box springs, inside cracks or crevices in headboards and furniture, behind wallpaper or in objects around a bed.
How you get bed bugs on you is then simple: As you (and sometimes pets) sleep in a room where bed bugs are lurking, the insects move onto your warm body by crawling — they can’t fly — and latch on to suck blood.
Thankfully, bed bugs are not known to transmit disease. But the CDC explains bed bug bites affect people differently. Some may not see or feel any physical sign of a bed bug bite while others may find small, itching bite marks. Allergic reactions to the bites are possible, especially if a person has sustained numerous bed bug bites. What’s more, because of itching, bed bug bites can cause loss of sleep and excessive scratching can sometimes lead to skin infections.
Where do bed bugs come from in the first place? The answer is — from all across the globe, from North and South America to Africa, Asia, and Europe. Long thought to be a problem primarily for developing countries, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and CDC report bed bugs are now frequently seen in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and other parts of Europe. The recent increase in bed bugs in the U.S. is likely due to more travel, lack of knowledge about preventing infestations, and the increased resistance of the insects to pesticides, the EPA points out.
What do bed bugs look like?
Learning what bed bugs look like is key to protecting yourself and recognizing if a bed or room is harboring the tiny creatures. Unfortunately, a survey of about 2,000 U.S. travelers by researchers at the University of Kentucky found most Americans who take trips for business or leisure travelers can't identify a bed bug. However, if they think they spot bed bugs, even if they are wildly mistaken, the idea a bed bug is in their hotel room evokes a stronger response than any other potential room problem.
"Considering all the media attention paid to bed bugs in recent years, the fact that most travelers still have a poor understanding of them is troubling," said researcher Michael Potter, PhD, extension professor in the University of Kentucky’s entomology department.
The results of the study by Potter and colleagues, published in American Entomologist, revealed only 35 percent of business travelers and 28 percent of leisure travelers queried could correctly identify a bed bug in a photographic lineup of common insects.
The public’s lack of understanding of bed bugs, including what they look like, “contributes to their spread throughout society as a whole,” Potter noted.
Bed bugs can be hard to spot and identify because of their extremely small size. Adult bed bugs have brown, oval shaped bodies as small as an apple seed or smaller. They are as thin as a credit card unless they’ve recently eaten — then they are balloon shaped.
Despite the insects’ tiny dimensions, the EPA offers several tips on how to spot and recognize the parasites. Adult bed bugs have antennae, wings (although not used for flying) and golden-colored “hairs,” Young bed bugs (also called nymphs) are even smaller than the adult version and translucent or whitish in color, unless they’ve recently fed on blood. You may also spot groups of bed bug eggs on a mattress or in other areas. Each egg is only the size of a pinhead and whitish, with a small “eye” spot if the eggs are older than five days.
Other signs bed bugs have infested an area can be easier to see:
- Bed bugs leave brown exoskeletons behind after molting.
- Groups of bed bugs may be spotted in the fold of mattresses and sheets.
- Rusty colored spots on sheets, a mattress, or nearby furniture are left by bed bugs when they excrete blood-filled fecal material.
- The insects produce a sweet musty odor around a mattress or other areas of a room they infest.
How to get rid of bed bugs
If you discover a bed bug infestation in your home, how to get rid of bed bugs can be complicated. The EPA warns it takes time and patience — there’s no quick fix. Of course, catching a bed bug problem early is the best solution.
EPA do-it-yourself strategies for eradicating bed bugs include thorough and frequent vacuuming (and immediately sealing the used vacuum bags in plastic bags to kill the insects afterwards), including your mattress and box springs.
Texas A&M bed bug experts advise washing bedding in hot water and drying for at least 30 minutes to kill bed bugs. And after vacuuming your mattress and box springs, cover them with bed-bug-proof encasements — fabric sacks with zippers designed to be tight enough to prevent even the smallest life stages of bed bugs from escaping.
Small items infested with bed bugs can be placed in plastic bags and frozen in your freezer for four days or placed in clothes dryer on high for 30 minutes or longer to kill the parasites. Consider using a professional pest control service to treat an infestation, but make sure the company is licensed and uses pesticides approved specifically for bed bugs, the EPA cautions.
Even if you are convinced all your bed bugs are dead, it’s important to check at least every seven days after treatment to make sure all the insects are gone, according to the EPA.
August 18, 2017
Janet O’Dell, RN