“Goodnight, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite!” This whimsical children’s bedtime saying makes light of what can be a serious problem. The common bed bug is a public health hazard. It exclusively feeds on human blood, causing extremely itchy bites. Fortunately, bed bugs don’t cause, transmit or spread disease—although germs from your hands can cause skin infections if you scratch the bites too vigorously.
People are often embarrassed to discover that they have bed bugs, as they have traditionally been seen as a sign of an unclean home. However, anyone can find themselves the victim of a bed bug infestation. Some of the most expensive hotels in the world have had to fight an invasion of these pests. Keep reading to learn more about bed bugs, how to keep from getting them and how to eliminate them if they’ve already made themselves an unwelcome house guest.
What are bed bugs?
Cimex lectularius is the scientific name for the common bed bug. It is part of the Cimicidae family, a group of bloodsucking insects. Bed bugs share common characteristics of true bugs, including:
- Antenna with four parts
- A beak with three segments
- Wings that are not used for flying
Other bugs in the Cimicidae family include bat bugs, swallow bugs and poultry bugs. As each of the names indicate, these insects mostly feed off bats and birds. However, these bugs can also creep into human living areas if they are close to roosting areas. Bed bugs are the only member of this insect family that is adapted to living entirely with humans.
After World War II, bedbugs were largely eliminated from the United States. For several decades, they existed only in small pockets around the nation. However, in the past decade, bed bugs have enjoyed a huge resurgence. This is largely attributed to increased human travel as the bugs are often carried in luggage. Infestations tend to be most severe in areas that see high amounts of human traffic, such as hotels and apartment buildings.
Bed Bug Basics
Adult bed bugs are approximately 5 mm long, reddish-brown or grayish-brown and have short hairs that are a golden brown color. Bed bugs can be smelly. Their scent is described as a musty, somewhat sweet odor and is produced through glands located on the underside of their body.
Bed bugs feed on human blood in the middle of the night, when people are sleeping. Their most active time is between midnight and 5:00 a.m. They are attracted to humans by body heat and the exhalation of CO2 (carbon dioxide). Once they find a host, they probe the skin with their mouthparts to find a fast-flowing capillary space. This can result in several small bites before the bug finds its ideal feeding spot.
A bed bug’s bite is painless. After feeding for up to 10 minutes, the bug releases and returns to its hiding area to digest the meal and defecate. Bed bugs usually feed every three to seven days.
Proteins in bed bug saliva usually cause raised red wheals to appear where the skin was bitten. These spots often appear in lines, where several bugs feed along the edge of a bedsheet or a piece of clothing that rests next to the skin. This characteristic line of bites is often the only sign that the bites were made by bed bugs. There is nothing else unique about their bites, and the presence of an itchy bite or two is as likely to be from a flea or other pest.
Itching may not fully manifest until a week or so after the bite occurs, then it declines. The intensity of the itching will vary by person, and some have found that repeated exposure results in a stronger reaction each time.
The Bed Bug Life Cycle
In addition to seeing adult bed bugs, you may notice signs left by bed bugs at other stages of life. Young bed bug nymphs have five developmental life stages, and each stage requires a blood meal for the insect to develop further. All insects must shed (molt) their exoskeleton to grow larger. Therefore, one method of identifying bed bug infestation is looking for deposits of nymph “cast skins” and egg shells.
The life stages of the bed bug are:
- Egg: A female bed bug produces one to seven eggs each day for about 10 days following each blood meal. Eggs hatch in six to 10 days.
- Nymph: Newly hatched nymphs immediately seek food. Nymphs develop through five distinct phases of growth and a blood meal is required to advance to the next level.
- Adult: Nymphs graduate to adult size about a month and half after hatching. Adult bed bugs live around nine to 12 months, depending on temperature and frequency of feeding.
What’s Involved in Eliminating Bed Bugs
Bed bug control is quite difficult because all infested sites must be treated simultaneously to eliminate the problem. All insects in the Cimicidae family share many of the same physical characteristics and can be hard for the untrained eye to identify. If you are unsure which type of bug you have, a pest control specialist can differentiate them. This step is important, because proper identification is necessary if you wish to fully eliminate the pests.
Bed bugs are usually concentrated around the bed. They can be found on the bed frame, inside the joints of the bed frame, behind headboards, in crevices and within decorative molding. Bed bugs can be found on the mattress, especially in the folds along the mattress edge and between the sheets at the foot of the bed. They can also be found on and inside nightstands and in any other dark areas near the bed.
These bugs tend to cluster in groups and when their numbers become high, they disperse throughout the bedroom. Bed bugs can migrate to adjacent rooms through tiny wall openings, such as holes drilled for electrical wiring or plumbing. Often, the first visible evidence of bed bugs is the presence of excrement. Their droppings look like dark spots.
To rid a house of bed bugs, you must disassemble beds and closely inspect each piece for evidence of infestation. Bugs can also live inside box springs, so you should remove the fabric on the bottom of the box spring to inspect and treat it. The entire bedroom must be examined, as bed bugs can hide under lamps, behind picture frames, inside curtains, and in areas where draperies meet the floor.
Bedding can be treated by washing in hot water and using a hot dryer cycle. Temperatures exceeding 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) are enough to kill bed bugs, as long as exposure lasts for several minutes. Ideally, you should dry your bedding on the highest heat setting for one hour. Ordinary washing and air-drying will not kill all stages of bed bugs. Bag all bedding before carrying it to the laundry room, to avoid dropping eggs or bugs onto the floor, where they may be missed and reinfest your home. Once the entire bed has been treated, purchase plastic coverings for mattresses, box springs, pillows and other items to prevent future infestation of bed bugs.
You may prefer to dispose of infested items instead. It’s best to take them to a dump rather than leave them on the curb, where others might take them and infest their own homes.
Insecticides effective against bed bugs are mostly in the pyrethroid class of pesticides. You can purchase over-the-counter insecticides that will work; however, a professional exterminator will have access to products that may be more effective. Insecticides must be applied to all areas where bugs are present. They also must directly contact the insects to kill them. Note that these types of insecticide have very little residual activity, and most do not kill bed bug eggs. Consequently, a second or even third treatment is necessary after any present eggs have been allowed time to hatch.
Professional heat treatments are another effective process that kills bed bugs. Using special equipment, an exterminator forces high-temperature, dry steam heat into rooms with bed bug infestation. Temperatures must exceed 140 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit (60 to 66 degrees Celsius) to adequately kill bugs at all stages of growth.
Vacuuming with a sealed vacuum during bed bug treatment is another valuable tool. Use a model with a strong suction to extract bugs from crevices and other hiding places. Adding diatomaceous earth or another drying agent to the vacuum bag will help kill collected insects. Seal the vacuum bag in plastic and dispose immediately after vacuuming.
Natural Methods for Repelling Bed Bugs
After following the laundering and vacuuming methods outlined above, there are a few natural products you can try if you prefer not to use an insecticide inside your home. Note that these are usually not powerful enough to fully eliminate a bed bug colony. However, they can serve as natural repellants to prevent reinfestation.
- Tea tree oil: This essential oil has a pleasant smell to humans, but bed bugs hate it. Rub the oil on your bedframe, or spray it on your carpet, rugs and bed linens. Use caution with tea tree oil if you have pets, as it can be toxic to some animals.
- Lavender: This herbal flower also has an appealing fragrance that insects move away from. Buy dried lavender sachets or bundles of dried flowers and layer them between your bed sheets in the linen closet. Apply lavender oil to your bedframe and spray it on rugs or carpeting. Some have found success with lining their mattress with lavender-scented dryer sheets.
- Diatomaceous earth: Made from diatoms (fossilized remains of small sea creatures), this powder is a non-toxic and all natural desiccant. It’s mostly comprised of silicon dioxide, which dries out insects. Bed bugs will not crawl through a line of diatomaceous earth. However, it can take up to 10 days to work. It can be a lung irritant, so wear a mask when applying it. Avoid using it directly on your bedding and store it far away from food.
Bed Bug Myths
Unfortunately, many stubborn myths persist about bed bugs and bed bug infestation. See if you’ve heard any of these, and learn the truth about bed bugs.
- Bed bugs are a sign of a dirty house. You can have bed bugs whether your home is messy or neat. All they care about is having their favorite food source nearby, and that’s you.
- Bed bugs can’t bite through clothing. Technically, this is true. A bed bug won’t lie atop your pajamas and pierce your skin through the fabric. However, because they are burrowing bugs, they will find a way underneath your clothing to satisfy their blood craving.
- If you have bites, but your partner doesn’t, it’s probably not bed bugs. Unfortunately, this is also false. Quite often, one person gets all the bites while the other person has none. Or, the supposedly “bite free” person may have bites, but not be allergic to the irritants in their saliva.
- Bed bugs can only be found in and around your bed. This is also false. If your room is heavily infested, you can bed bugs hiding five to 20 feet away from the bed itself. Examine the seams on chairs and throw pillows. Look inside dresser drawers and carefully examine the contents. Look on curtains, especially if they touch the floor. Electrical receptacles, appliances, lamps and under loose wallpaper are all favorite bed bug hideaways.
- Bedbugs only feed at night. While they are primarily nocturnal, they will feed any time of day if they are hungry.
- Bedbugs must have a blood meal every day to survive. Actually, bed bugs are much hardier than this. They typically feed on blood every five to 10 days, but have been known to survive up to one year without feeding.
- Aerosol foggers are the fastest DIY way to get rid of bed bugs. Foggers are actually one of the least-effective methods of eliminating bed bugs. Because they spray over a wide area, and bed bugs tend to hide in cracks and crevices, not enough of the insecticide comes in direct contact with the bugs. Without actually touching the eggs, nymphs and adult insects, it cannot kill them.
Bed Bug FAQs
How do I get rid of bed bugs?
Diligence is required to fully eliminate bed bugs. Follow the advice outlined above for detailed tips on getting rid of a bed bug infestation. While it’s possible to handle it yourself, bed bugs can be extremely difficult to eliminate. Therefore, it may be best to hire a professional.
What do bed bugs look like?
Adult bed bugs are brown in color, with an oval shaped body. They average 5 mm in length, or about the size of an apple seed. If they haven’t eaten recently, their body will be flat. If they have fed, the body will take on a rounded, balloon-like appearance. Most adult bed bugs are only as thick as a credit card, which explains how they are able to hide inside such tiny fissures.
Nymphs vary in size from 1.5 mm to 4.5 mm, depending on their stage of growth. They look like miniature versions of bed bugs, translucent or yellow-white in color. If they haven’t recently fed, they can be nearly invisible to the naked eye.
Bed bug eggs are tiny, about the size of a pinhead. They are a pearly white color and will have a tiny black eye spot if they are more than five days old.
How do you get bed bugs?
Bed bugs hijack their way into your home. Some documented transporters of bed bugs include:
- Used or antique furniture
- Clothing and textiles purchased from thrift stores
- Visitors who unknowingly carry them on their own clothing
It’s also possible—but highly unlikely—that you picked up bed bugs at a movie theater, restaurant or retail store. Because of how bed bugs reproduce, a female can carry sperm inside her and fertilize her eggs internally for a long while after mating. This means that one single female bed bug has the ability to infest an entire household over time, as her fertile eggs hatch and mature offspring mate together.
How do I check for bed bugs?
While cleaning, look for physical signs of bed bugs on your mattress, box springs and bedding. Rusty or reddish stains on sheets or mattresses indicate bed bugs being crushed, or excrement bleeding onto the fabric. You may see excrement itself, which looks like small dark spots about the size of a poppy seed. Of course, you may also see actual bed bugs in various life stages.
What can I use to kill bed bugs?
As detailed above, bed bugs can be successfully eliminated by heat treatment, specific insecticides and thorough cleaning. The strongest and most effective products will be available only through a professional exterminating service.
Where do bed bugs come from?
The common bed bug’s ancestors primarily lived and fed on flying animals, including bats, owls and a variety of other birds. As people moved into caves and other areas bats and birds tend to roost, the insects naturally gravitated to humans as a food source. Over time, Cimex lectularius became the only species within its family group to adapt to living solely with humans.
How big are bed bugs?
A bed bug’s size varies depending on what stage of the life cycle it is in. An adult bed bug is approximately half a centimeter (5 mm) in length. A bed bug nymph’s size varies depending on its stage of life, from nearly invisible to the naked eye to almost as big as an adult bug.
How can I tell if I have bed bugs?
Often, tiny dark dots appear on the cracks and crevices of your mattress, or on your bed sheets, particularly wherever there are folds and creases in the fabric. Another first sign can be waking up with bites on your skin. If the bite welts form a line, that is a near-certain indication of bed bugs being present. If you see these signs and begin to look around, it’s usually pretty easy to see adult bugs, egg casings and other debris indicative of infestation.
Do bed bug bites itch, and what helps alleviate the discomfort?
The degree to which bed bug bites itch varies by individual. Some people are highly sensitive to the reaction-causing proteins in the insect’s saliva, while others are not greatly affected. Repeated exposure to bed bug bites seems to increase the severity of the itchy reaction. Itching may not begin until several days after being bitten, but it can be intense when it’s at its peak.
To alleviate the itch, use a strong hydrocortisone ointment or calamine lotion. Aloe vera gels with benzocaine can also help numb the area temporarily. Some people find relief from itching after applying a paste made of baking soda and water.
Do bed bugs fly?
Although they have wings, like all true insects, bed bugs cannot fly.