Bedbugs: Are they coming for you?

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Your grandmother really meant it when she said, "Sleep tight, and don't let the bedbugs bite." The press is full of horror stories about voracious, blood-sucking bedbugs that feast on you in your sleep, leaving red, itchy welts behind. Is it all hype, or is there cause for concern?

Since their virtual eradication in the United States back in the 1950s, bedbugs have fallen off the housekeeping radar, and that's one of the reasons there's a real cause for concern. Since men started living in caves and making comfy beds to sleep on, bedbugs have been along for the ride. They take advantage of our warm-blooded nature, literally, to move in and gorge on the red stuff. In the olden days, folks boiled their bedding to deal with the pests, and diligent housekeepers vacuumed daily and watched for the telltale signs of a growing infestation.


Bedbugs are tiny, about a quarter of an inch long as adults, and they're relatively flat. This makes it easy for them to hide in cracks, crevices and carpeting. Today's super bedbugs are all that and resistant to many pesticides, too. To make matters worse, some of the most effective bedbug pesticides of old, like DDT, are too dangerous for the environment, and bedbugs have developed a resistance to others, like malathion and diazinon. Pesticides for common household pests, like cockroaches, are now put out in bait form rather than as broadcast sprays. Baits are ineffective against bedbugs, which leaves U.S. homes ill-prepared and relatively unprotected.



Why are bedbugs back?

No one knows how or why bedbugs have exploded on the scene in the last few years. It's probably the result of a number of factors. People are traveling more, including significant foreign travel into areas where bedbugs are more common than they used to be here. We don't currently have good pesticide treatments to handle bedbugs, and people have been pretty oblivious to the warning signs, allowing colonies to become well established and widespread.

So, are the horror stories true? Are there bedbugs in department store dressing rooms, airports, movie theaters and even upscale hotels? Yes, in some geographical locations, bedbugs are a big problem. In places where lots of people come together indoors, like theaters and department stores, and in buildings where there are communal living arrangements, like hotels, apartments and dorms, there can be bedbugs. Bedbugs don't respect boundaries, like walls and doors. If you visit an infested area, a bug or two can crawl onto your clothing, hide in the seams of your luggage or handbag, and even hang out in your shoes. It isn't hard to bring a hitchhiking bedbug into your home and not know it -- until you have a problem.


Your first indication that you have bedbugs will probably be a few bites that show up as swollen, red, itchy bumps. When they begin multiplying instead of going away, it's time to start inspecting your surroundings. Bedbugs like to stay within 8 feet of their victims, so the areas where you sleep and spend lots of time relaxing are ground zero for an infestation. Look for reddish brown dots on bedding and check around your bed for exoskeletons. Bedbugs like to hide in mattress seams and behind headboards, but they're masters at concealment and can also hide in carpeting, behind wallpaper, on the undersides of furniture, and behind electrical switch plates and outlets.

You're much better off avoiding an infestation instead of having to deal with one, so use some precautions:

  • Avoid buying used, upholstered furniture.
  • If you think you may have visited an area infested with bedbugs, wash your clothes in very hot water as soon as you get home. Steam clean outerwear before bringing it indoors.
  • Inspect your luggage carefully after a trip, and store it away from areas where you sleep.
  • If you're staying in a hotel room you think may harbor bedbugs, consider changing hotels.

Professional pest control companies are working to come up with effective methods for detecting and eliminating bedbug infestations. If you think you may have uninvited houseguests, call a professional exterminator sooner rather than later. After bedbugs become well-established in your home, they're very hard to eradicate.


Lots More Information

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  • Animal Planet. "Small Dogs, Big Jobs: Bed Bug Sniffing Dogs." 8/23/10. 9/28/10.
  • "Bedbugs." Undated 9/28/10.
  • CDC. "Joint Statement on Bed Bug Control in the United States from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Undated. 9/27/10
  • Mayo Clinic. "Bedbugs." Undated. 9/28/10.
  • McNeil, Donald G. Jr. "They Crawl, They Bite, They Baffle Scientists." New York Times. 8/30/10. 9/28/10.
  • The Bug Clinic. "Bed Bugs - A Health Problem Returns to the U.S." Undated. 9/27/10