Bed bugs are big news these days. They’ve infested hotels and resorts, condos and apartments, mansions and humble cottages all over the country.
But bed bug myths are almost as big a problem as the insects themselves. An inaccurate perception of bed bugs contributes to near-hysteria over the return of a pest that humans have dealt with for thousands of years. As recently as the 1940’s, bed bugs were a commonplace irritant as familiar to most Americans as mosquitos or ants are now. In fact, the past couple of years has seen a huge media frenzy in regards to the bed bug pestilence. You can find bed bugs in the news on a regular basis.
Here we’ll take a look at the most commonly-held bed bug myths and replace them with up-to-date information. Along the way we’ll discover some common-sense methods to deal with what is a new pest to most of us.
Myth 1: Bed Bugs Are Invisible
This one contributes a lot to the fear people have of bed bugs. You can swat a mosquito; you can step on an ant. But if you can’t see an insect, the creepiness factor goes off the charts. Even dust lightly touching your skin can make you shudder and think: Bed Bugs!
Bed bugs are quite visible to the naked eye, in all stages of life. It’s true they begin as tiny little white eggs, but the eggs are laid in groupings of 30-50. Against any dark surface they will be apparent if you’re looking carefully.
After the eggs hatch, the bed bug nymphs go through five moltings, shedding their skin at each stage. The tiniest bed bug nymph is about the size of a pinhead, and a translucent light grey. As they grow, they become progressively darker, until they reach their adult size of 3-5 mm (up to .2 inches). This is about the size of an apple seed.
That would be hard to see if you’re trying to find a single bed bug. But what you are looking for is evidence of bed bugs, and these insects tend to congregate in nesting and reproduction. So you would find clusters of bugs, eggs, molts in areas like your bed’s box spring, or around buttons and piping on a mattress.
Myth 2: Bed Bugs Carry Diseases
There is no evidence that bed bugs pass diseases between hosts. This was known even before bed bugs were eradicated in the West in the middle of the 1900’s, and that hasn’t changed. There are several types of bed bugs, but the kind that has adapted to prefer human habitations (the common bed bug, Cimex lectularius) has never been implicated in infection.
People do suffer health effects from bed bugs, however. The most common problem is infection from excessive scratching. If you notice bites in the morning that were not there the evening before, bed bugs might be the culprit. Other causes are possible, but it’s worth investigating further.
Don’t ignore the bites just because they’re unexplained—treat them as you would a mosquito or other insect bite: disinfect the site, limit scratching, use an antihistimine product to reduce itching. It’s important to control scratching if you want to prevent infection.
More rarely, people can develop an allergic sensitivity to a bed bug infestation. These individuals can break out into a rash that resembles bed bug bites even if no live bugs are still biting them. This is because detritus from the infestation remains, and the home dweller has become sensitized to elements in the carcasses or skins left behind. Once bed bugs have been eliminated from the home of a person who experienced reactions to the bed bug bites, it’s important to clean up thoroughly and remove all remnants of the infestation.
Another health effect from bed bugs is anxiety or sleeplessness. Understandably, if you suspect there are bugs sucking your blood as your sleep, you might find it a little difficult to let your guard down. Fatigue and depression can be outgrowths of lack of sleep. So if you suspect bed bugs in your home, take steps to eradicate and control them before you lose sleep over it.
Myth 3: Bed Bugs Only Live In Dirty Places
Bed bugs are attracted to warmth, carbon dioxide, and blood. They do not get extra benefits from crumbs on the floor or greasy spatters in the kitchen.
Another thing bed bugs need to thrive is hiding places, so cluttered areas with lots of furniture and fabrics are attractive to them. Bed bugs are about as thin as a credit card—they can fit into wall outlets, fabric seams, behind baseboards, in tiny rips of wallpaper and the borders between carpet and wall. To give you an idea of how crafty they are when it comes to hiding, they can squeeze down into the recessed area around a screwhead.
Beds are perfect spots for bed bugs because they present lots of hiding places and provide convenient access to the warm, carbon dixoide-breathing, blood-filled host. Mattresses have those nice round piped seams at the edges, and the big buttons with plenty of space underneath to raise a bed bug family. Box springs are also excellent, being dark and undisturbed, and not too far from the sleeping victim. Headboards usually have wood detailing that gives good hiding.
Incidentally, another myth is that using a metal bed will keep you safe from bed bugs. Not true—it’s just less hospitable for them in the bedframe itself. They will still make do with the mattress or springs.
Myth 4: No Pesticide Works On Bed Bugs
Not true. DDT and other powerful chemicals were successful in the near-eradication of bed bugs previously, and alternatives are being developed all the time.
What is true is that bed bugs are becoming resistant to some overused and ineffective chemicals. Many people, hoping to avoid the expense of an exterminator, attempt to use bug bombs or other over-the-counter insect solutions. Because these don’t work, they tend to use them over and over, or to double the recommended strength or frequency of attack. In addition to putting themselves and their families at risk from misusing these chemicals, they are only making the problem worse.
There is no one solution to a bed bug infestation. Integrated Pest Management is a multi-pronged approach that uses chemical and non-chemical methods to kill the bugs and prevent or discourage their return. You can implement such a program itself, but choosing and obtaining the correct chemicals—and applying them effectively—is time-prohibitive for most people.
Your best bet is choosing a pest control professional to work with you to develop a monitoring and treatment program at the most cost-effective level for your problem. Some good information can be found at the EPA website for bed bug control.
Myth 5: You Know You Have Bed Bugs Because You Get Bitten At Night
This is a good indication that you should start investigating, but not everybody has a noticeable reaction to bed bug bites. Bites are not a reliable indicator of the presence of bed bugs. You could still have bed bugs in your home and never feel an itchy bite. Unfortunately, this is one reason many people deny a bed bug problem—they have bites, but other family members don’t. They reasonably assume that the bites came from another source, like mosquitos, or perhaps the itch is just some random rash.
To settle the question of whether you have bed bugs or not, you really need visual confirmation of the bugs themselves. Because bed bugs are becoming more and more common, and there is no sure-fire way to “prevent” them, it would be wise to start a program of bed bug vigilance now.
One handy device is a mattress encasement, which is a special cover for your mattress and box spring. Beds in general give the bugs almost limitless hiding spots—these covers present an equally attractive place for the bugs to congregate, but they are easy to inspect for signs of bed bugs.
Look for blood spots, which is actually bed bug stool. The spots can be reddish-black to black, and can absorb into the material or pool up. They won’t flake when rubbed, and will smear if dabbed with a damp cloth.
Also look for shells or husks of the developing nymphs, or collections of the tiny white eggs that are stuck to mattress material or in hidden corners and edges of the bed frame. You might also see rusty colored spots on light bed linens, which show where bed bugs were crushed as you move about at night.
Myth 6: You Can Destroy Your Bed To Get Rid Of Bed Bugs
Do you remember how bed bugs desire only warmth, carbon dioxide and blood? Your bed is not the only place where you’re a sitting duck.
Many of us spend enough time on the sofa or in an easy chair that bed bugs figure they can set up there and get a meal whenever they sense we’re settled in for a spell.
Even drapery than overhangs or touches furniture is inviting enough for bed bugs to set up house. Wallpaper against the back side of furniture also makes a nice spot within reach of a resting human.
So throwing out your bed might be a natural reaction to finding bed bugs, but unless you’re lucky enough to have found the bugs so early that they haven’t spread anywhere else, that probably won’t get rid of the problem. And besides, a perfectly good bed is going to get picked up by somebody else. Since bed bugs can survive for up to a year without a meal, they’ll just hang on until they find a new home.
Myth 7: You’ll Be Safe From Bed Bugs If You Don’t Travel
It’s not the travelers who necessarily bring bed bugs into your home. Increased travel may have helped fuel the recent surge in bed bug populations, but bed bugs are here, not “out there”.
Most people will never discover where the bed bugs in their home came from. You can pick up these hitchhikers using public transit, or by having a visitor. You might buy a piece of used furniture or clothing item that carries them into your house. A service person might carry them in inadvertently while making a house call.
It would be foolish to lock your doors to all visitors and never go out for fear of bed bugs. It is very likely that most of us will experience an infestation in the near future, much as our parents and grandparents did. The key point is to recognize that bed bugs are back, and we’ll have to return to the tactics of an earlier time, i.e., check for them on a regular basis. Then take the trouble to worry about fixing the problem.
There are obviously a few things you can do to reduce your chances of bringing bed bugs home when you travel:
- Unpack your luggage on a luggage rack in hotels—don’t let items touch the floor or cabinet interiors.
- Pull the hotel beds away from their headboards (usually mounted on the wall) so they’re not touching.
- Inspect the bed before using it if it makes you feel better. Otherwise, don’t lay your clothes out on the bed or lounge on it dressed.
- When you get home, unpack directly into the washing machine. Wash and dry on hottest settings.
- Inspect all your luggage and bags. Steam clean if possible or if you suspect bed bugs crawled in.
Myth 8: You’ll Be Safe From Bed Bugs If You Keep The Lights On
Bed bugs prefer dark places for their feeding activity, but light does not totally discourage them. What they’re after is little to no movement once they sense the presence of their hosts. This is why they don’t typically feed during the day—because we’re up and about.
How To Prevent a Bed Bug Infestation
Most experts agree that bed bugs will increasingly become a problem in homes as well as public facilities such as schools, hospitals, libraries—anyplace where people come together. Now that you understand more about bed bugs and how to deal with them, take steps to monitor your home for bed bugs so you can prevent a small, manageable problem from becoming a big source of anxiety and expense.
Take a look at our bed bug prevention article for more info.