Locking your doors and setting the alarm when you go to bed at night may not be enough to protect you from bloodthirsty marauders. When you lay your sleepy head on that nice, soft pillow, your bed, bedroom and even your body may be harboring insect invaders that will feast on you in your sleep, leaving the ravages of their filthy bites behind to torment you with bumps, redness, and sometimes the real threat of disease.
The phrase "Sleep tight, and don't let the bedbugs bite" isn't a quaint artifact from a simpler time. It's real, and it's happening right now -- probably in a home or public building near you. Bedbug populations have been on the rise and on the move over the last decade. In the 1950s, the liberal use of the pesticide DDT almost eradicated them, but even then, small numbers were building up a tolerance against it and other measures developed since then to control household pests. The result is a super bedbug with a high tolerance for chemical pesticides and a powerful urge to take a bite out of you while your catching some Z's.
Although bedbugs are getting lots of press these days, they aren't the only threat. From hungry mosquitoes to thirsty fleas, there are lots of critters around that think your bedroom is a banquet hall when it comes to eating in style.
When the Bedbugs Bite
From 1 to 7 millimeters long (adults will be around a quarter of an inch), bedbugs are brownish red, rounded and slightly flat. They feed at night when you're sleeping, and release an anesthetic when they bite. If you start waking up with small inflamed, itchy bumps, it may be the first indication that you have uninvited houseguests. Bedbugs travel from location to location by crawling onto clothing or hiding in the seams of handbags and luggage. They aren't just living in bedrooms, either. They've been discovered in movie theaters, office cubbies and department store dressing rooms. Anywhere people gather indoors is a potential spot for lurking bedbugs, and their presence is becoming so widespread that even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Environmental Protection agency (EPA) are calling their growing numbers alarming.
Bedbugs are patient little vampires, too. Adults can survive without a meal for more than a year, so don't plan on closing the bedroom door for a couple of weeks to starve them out. They can also hide in some enterprising areas, such as behind wallpaper and under carpeting. For a bug that's visible to the naked eye, bedbugs are definitely good at concealment.
If you think you have a bedbug infestation, check the seams in your couch and mattress for small brown spots. Inspect your sheets and pillowcases, too. If you don't detect anything, it doesn't mean you've dodged a bullet. You should also inspect the back of your headboard, the undersides of nearby furniture and along your baseboards. Finding a live specimen may be a challenge as they can spend the daylight hours well hidden, but discarded exoskeletons that look like desiccated bugs and tiny blood-filled bug feces (spots) will be detectable if you look carefully. You may also be able to smell a slightly musty, sweet odor near your bed or bedding. Another option is to buy sticky strips and put them on the floor around your bed to trap a bedbug commuter for a definitive identification. Trapping lots of them on a sticky strip may give you an idea of how advanced your infestation is, too.
Bedbug bites can itch like crazy, but bedbugs aren't considered disease carriers. When you're new hobby is bedbug hunting and recreational bite scratching, this may be small comfort, though.
If you've ever heard a high-pitched whine near your ear as you're drifting off to sleep only to discover a mosquito bite or two on your face or arms the next morning, you aren't alone. There are more than 2,700 species of mosquitoes around the world, and about 13 of those varieties call the United States home. Unlike bedbugs, mosquitoes can carry serious diseases like West Nile, encephalitis, malaria and yellow fever. To keep mosquito populations under control, many communities have programs in place to reduce the presence of stagnant water in ponds and ditches, an environment necessary for mosquitoes to reproduce.
Only female mosquitoes bite, and they can find victims a number of ways. They follow visual cues by detecting movement and distinguishing color shifts. If you're walking around and don't match the scenery, you may be a meal. They also detect carbon dioxide and lactic acid in respiration up to 100 feet away. If you're breathing, you may be a target. They can sense heat and sweat, too. The good news is that you can keep mosquitoes outdoors if you're diligent. The bad news is that if they get in, you'll probably be a bug buffet before morning.
Fending off Fleas
As if two blood-sucking bugs weren't enough to disturb your slumber, if you have pets, you'll have to watch out for fleas, too. These tiny parasites prefer your four-footed, furry friends, but if they're hungry enough and you're handy, they'll dine on you, too. Fleas can go months without a meal in your carpeting and bedding, and if you can see fleas on your pet, they're only the tip of the buggy iceberg. About 5 percent of the fleas in your home are adults hopping around the family mutt. The other 95 percent are distributed among flea eggs, larvae and pupae, the other three parts of a flea's life cycle.
Like mosquitoes, fleas can also carry nasty diseases like Bubonic plague and typhus. Fleas are typically easier to get rid of than bedbugs, but you may have to employ flea growth and development inhibiters or pesticides to do it. There are also effective flea repellents on the market, like those containing DEET that will make you and yours less appealing to fleas in the first place.
After dealing with blood hungry bedbugs, mosquitoes and fleas, dust mites seem tame. They're related to spiders, but on a tiny scale. They don't bite, and at less than 1/100 of an inch long, their major negative contribution is that their waste -- as in, dust mite feces -- causes allergies and asthma problems. They feed on dead skin cells, and humans shed lots of skin -- somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 to 40 thousand skin cells each and every minute.
You can help keep dust mites under control by using a high-efficiency air filter and reducing the humidity in your home. You should also wash your bedding weekly and vacuum regularly. Dusting daily is a good maintenance strategy, too.
If it's starting to look like there's more wildlife in your bedroom than in your backyard, relax. Even with a few baddies trying to munch on you when you're not looking, you're usually still better off in the relative safety of your own home.
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