Bed Bugs: An Increasing Public Health Concern

Before I started writing about pests full-time, I enjoyed going to hotels. I still remember the first time that I lost my “beg bug ignorance” and that all changed. I had just checked in to my hotel room in downtown DC and joined the rest of our group in the lobby. As we were chatting about our travels, one of my colleagues asked, “So did you check your room for bed bugs?”

Did I do what? I certainly checked when I went back to my room that night! And now, every time I stay in a hotel, I check the mattress and furniture for bed bugs. Staying in a hotel now is nowhere near the relaxing experience it used to be.

Bed Bug before feeding

Bed bug before feeding

Most of us who grew up post-DDT haven’t ever seen a bed bug. However, before the 1940s, they were widespread in most public places—hotels, movie theatres, taxis, schools, hospitals—anywhere that people gathered. Bed bugs are blood feeders, and the common bed bug, Cimex lectularius, is the species most humans will find in their homes and other gathering places. Unlike roaches, which are more prevalent in unkempt places, bed bugs are indiscriminate in terms of where they reside.

They are also becoming increasingly common. From January to April 2010 the National Pest Management Association  and the University of Kentucky surveyed 6,000 U.S. and 900 international pest management companies and gathered 950 responses. About 95 percent of U.S. respondents indicated their company had encountered a bed bug infestation in the past year. Most respondents said that they had encountered infestations in apartments and condominiums (89%), followed by single family homes (88%) and hotels/motels (67%). Other places where one might expect bed bugs are college dorms, homeless shelters, nursing homes, office buildings, hospitals and schools.

However, bed bugs are now showing up in places you may not expect, according to several respondents, including on public transportation, laundries, movie theatres, churches, libraries, furniture and retail stores, restaurants, locker and dressing rooms, fire and police stations, moving vans, ambulances, funeral homes and doctor’s offices.

Although bed bugs do not transmit disease, they have been labeled a public health concern, mainly because of the emotional distress they cause their victims. Whereas other bugs such as mosquitoes or roaches attack in open places, bed bugs invade the most intimate of places—the bedroom—and attack at night, while people are sleeping. Most survey respondents (99%) reported that their customers were “upset and concerned” with bed bug infestations because of the social stigma.

Bed bug

Bed bug, actual size

If you’re still reading, you’re probably asking yourself, “so what does a bed bug look like, and how do I check?” Below are several resources on bed bugs, from several states, for more specific information than I’m going to give you. If you’re in a hurry, here are some pointers on what to look for, recommended by nearly every resource you’ll read:

  • What they look like: Bed bugs are small, brown, flattened insects. The main difference in appearance between the bed bug and the tick is the number of legs—bed bugs are insects, so they have 6 legs, while ticks are arachnids (like spiders) and have 8 legs.

    Bed bugs on a mattress

    Bed bugs on a mattress

  • Where to look: Bed bugs most frequently hide in the seams of the mattress and box spring; in fact, that’s usually where infestations begin (if you haven’t brought them home on your clothing). That’s the first place to look, although they can also hide in any crevice.
  • What to look for: tiny brown spots on the mattress about the size of a pinhead—those are bed bug excrement. Sometimes blood stains on the mattress or pillow may be evident (from bed bugs being squished), insect skins or live bed bugs.
  • How to prevent them: If you are staying in a hotel room, use the luggage racks (if they are provided) to store your luggage, NOT the floor or beds. Check the beds as recommended above. At home, clear up clutter and wash and dry bed sheets at the hottest setting. If you’re returning home from a trip, unpack your clothes directly into the washing machine. Keep your house as clean and clutter-free as possible, making sure bedding doesn’t touch the floor.
  • What to do if you find them: If you find them in your hotel room, ask for a change in rooms, preferably on another wing of the hotel. If you find them at home, do a thorough inspection to find where they are (to find out the level of infestation) and clean your house thoroughly. The EPA has some recommendations on how to treat them. Do NOT try to treat a bed bug infestation yourself unless you have to. Bug bombs, lighter fluid, Raid, and other toxic chemicals don’t eradicate bed bugs and they may cause other problems as well. If you have to treat a bed bug infestation without a professional, this fact sheet from Texas A&M University, and this bed bug fact sheet from Cornell have some detailed advice on how to identify bed bugs and the steps to go through to get rid of them.

    If you find that you have an infestation that you don’t feel you can control yourself, call a pest control professional as soon as possible. The professional will be able to tell you where they are, where to look in the future, and how to limit your chances of another infestation.

The Internet is filled with recommendations about how to get rid of bed bugs; however, much of it is not based on science and could even make the infestation worse. Below are several resources that we recommend reviewing first. The best advice is that if you find bed bugs, call a pest control professional.

Bed Bug Resources:

2 Responses

  1. Bed bugs are the worst! I stayed in a hotel in New York and ended up bringing them back to my house. I was worried about my kids. I needed a non-toxic solution and didn’t want to leave my house for too long. I lucked out and found these guys. they really took care of the problem.

  2. Bed bugs are ever unwanted in households. Bed bugs will infest readily and if not controlled in enough time, will continue to wreck havoc reaching high level infestation which may be complex to eliminate completely….
    Bedbugs! These insects invade homes and wreak havoc wherever they will intentionally attack. Effective bed bug control may seem impossible when it comes to a high level stubborn infestation, but there must be light at the end of the tunnel to eliminate these small, pesky pests.
    Bed bugs are tricky bugs. When they get into a home or business, they can get into hard to reach locations, not just your beds. These insects can dwell in outlets, wall voids, electronics, behind baseboards and anywhere close to resting and sleeping human sites. They can also be deep inside upholstered furniture or under rugs unsparingly. The trick to beating these hitch hiking, tricky bugs is understanding their habits and habitats.

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