Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) are an itchy, embarrassing and increasingly common problem. Although they spread no diseases, bed bugs are hard to get rid of and easy to spread, making them a problem no one wants to admit having. Many people do have the problem, however, due to increases in the frequency of travel and the insects' growing resistance to common pesticides. As the risk of bed bug exposure increases, it's important to understand how to identify and treat bed bug issues. You should also know how to avoid the pesky little critters.
Identification and Life Cycle
The appearance of bed bugs changes depending upon their age. After insemination, female bed bugs lay seven to 10 eggs after every blood meal they consume. These eggs are about 1 millimeter in length, making them the size of a pinhead. Females lay their eggs wherever they happen to be, so you may find them anywhere in your bedroom or other affected areas. When the eggs are about five days old they form a black eye spot, and they take about two weeks to hatch.
After hatching, bed bugs are known as nymphs. These young insects are smaller than adults and very difficult to see with the naked eye. If you do see them, you'll notice they're translucent and whitish-yellow in color. As nymphs grow, they progress through five stages known as instars. Each instar begins after molting and lasts five to eight days under ideal conditions. Nymphs require a blood meal before progressing to the next instar, however, so those that are unable to find a host will stay in their current stage until they either feed or die.
Nymphs who find enough food to reach adulthood measure 1/4 inch long and are the size of apple seeds. Individuals that haven't recently fed are brown in color and shaped like an oval. If the insect is full from a recent blood meal, it may look more like a tiny round balloon. Freshly fed bed bugs appear red rather than brown. Adult bed bugs live for a year at room temperature (70 degrees Fahrenheit) and survive up to five months without a meal.
How Bed Bugs Spread
Luckily, bed bugs can't fly. They are proficient at hiding, however, and it's easy to unknowingly bring them home with you. Bed bugs hide in suitcases, mattresses, furniture, pillows, carpets and even boxes. You could even be unfortunate enough to move into a home where bed bugs are already lurking. Bed bugs may also come home with you after a night in a contaminated hotel, and your luggage can pick up these unwanted passengers from other suitcases in bus and airplane cargo holds.
Do You Have Bed Bugs?
The most common sign of a bed bug problem is waking up itchy with small bites on your exposed skin. You'll also likely notice tiny rust-colored spots on your sheets and pillowcase as well as on your walls. These dots are bed bug excrement and are a clear indicator of a problem. If you think you have an issue but aren't sure, grab a flashlight and a magnifying glass to search for the bugs and their eggs.
Begin the search by removing your bedclothes and examining your mattress. Bed bugs often congregate in the piping around mattresses and seams of box springs. Look at the floor around your bed and then move to your nightstand and other bed-adjacent furniture. Bed bugs are only as thick as a credit card, so they can hide in any electronics or books on your bedside table. These stealthy insects often hide in electrical outlets, wall cracks, curtain folds, behind door and window frames, and in baseboard trim. Search methodically and thoroughly.
If you don't find any bugs but still have concerns, call an exterminator for a professional inspection and peace of mind.
Getting Rid of Them
If you do find bed bugs at any life stage, begin treatment immediately. With regular feeding and ideal temperatures, bed bugs can double their population every 16 days, so act quickly. The first step is to force yourself to keep sleeping in your bed. Even though the idea may seem revolting, sleeping somewhere else in the house will only encourage the bed bugs to move with you and spread the problem.
Begin by washing your bedding, clothing and curtains in hot water and drying them on high heat. Vacuum your mattress, box spring and carpet thoroughly. Immediately after vacuuming, place the vacuum bag inside a plastic bag, seal it and dispose of it in an outside trash can. Put your box spring and mattress each in a mattress cover designed to exclude bed bugs. Doing so will stop new bed bugs from gaining access to them and trap any existing insects in the mattress and away from you. After protecting your bed, repair cracks in your walls and caulk around window and door frames. If you have papered walls, repair any spots where the wallpaper is peeling. Once you've done what you can, call an exterminator for further advice and to schedule professional treatment.
Preventing Bed Bugs
The best way to deal with bed bugs is to avoid them. At home, place your mattress and box springs in protective covers that will keep bed bugs out. Reduce the amount of clutter in your home, repair peeling wallpaper and cracking walls, and vacuum regularly. Always inspect your home after hosting overnight guests and keep your bed and other furniture an inch away from walls rather than pushed up against them. Always buy furniture and mattresses new rather than used, and think twice before acquiring home goods via dumpster diving and curb surfing.
When traveling, bring a flashlight and thoroughly inspect your hotel room and its mattress for signs of an issue. Do this before carrying your luggage or other personal belongings into the room. If you find bed bugs, ask for another room or stay in a different hotel. Make sure your new room doesn't share a wall with the one you rejected. Set your suitcase on a luggage rack and keep your clothes in your suitcase rather than unpacking them into the hotel furniture. When you return home, wash your clothes immediately, even if you didn't wear them.