Bed bugs are becoming an increasingly common concern among homeowners. With all the stories in the news about bed bugs in hotels, on public transportation, and in homes, you might be wondering how to identify a bed bug infestation and, hopefully, how to prevent one.
Well, there’s good news and bad news. It’s very difficult to prevent bed bugs from entering your home. Short of living in a detached building and locking yourself in and others out, there’s very little you can do to keep your home free of bed bugs. Much like mosquitos, ants, and flies, they are a fact of life now that they’ve made a reappearance in the Western countries that eradicated them with DDT back in the 1940’s.
The good news is that newer chemical and non-chemical treatments have been developed to manage bed bugs. There is no silver bullet that will rid you of the problem in one fell swoop, but having bed bugs in your home does not mean that you must resign yourself to living with them forever.
Bed Bugs Are Not Dangerous
First, understand that bed bugs do not present any threat greater than those more familiar pests mentioned earlier. Bed bugs do not carry disease, and having them doesn’t mean you live in filthy conditions or a bad neighborhood.
Bed bugs are simple insects that take advantage of our inactivity (usually, but not always) at night to get the blood that sustains them. They are hardy creatures adapted to living in human habitations, which provide everything they need and are attracted to: warmth, carbon dixoide, and blood.
They do not destroy furniture, nor do they leave obvious signs about the house that will disgust friends and family. You’ll have to do some detective work if you want to identify a bed bug infestation.
Visible Signs Of Bed Bugs
There are a couple visible signs that can alert you to the presence of bed bugs.
1. Blood Stains
Check light colored bed linens for dark spots that don’t flake off. Adult bed bugs that have found a feeding source excrete blood as stool, so one of the easiest ways to identify a bed bug infestation is to inspect light-colored bed linens for dark spots that do not flake, kind of like marker stains.
2. Bed Bugs’ Shed Skin
Bed bugs start as tiny, white eggs. Although they’re quite small, the female usually lays them in clusters of 30-50, so the mass should be visible to the naked eye. As they hatch and grow, bed bugs become increasingly larger and darker. They’re never easy to spot, but they are visible. The adults grow up to 5mm (.2 in), which is the size of an apple seed. As they grow, the nymphs (baby bed bugs) shed their skin five times. These little shells also tend to be discarded in piles that should be easy to spot.
3. Crushed Bed Bugs
When you move about in a bed, you may crush some bed bugs; blood-engorged bugs that have been crushed will leave rust-colored stains on linens.
4. Unexplained Bites
The most obvious sign of bed bugs is when they bite you at night or you wake up and find your body covered in red patches (bit marks)
5. An Actual Bed Bug
Bed bugs are very small and hard to spot, but they are certainly big enough to see, if you are on the lookout for them. Unless you are really lucky and spot one (bed bugs come out to feed late at night, usually when you are sleeping), you’ll have to inspect your bedding area thoroughly to spot a live bug.
Non-Visible Signs Of Bed Bug Infestation
Most people would think the surest sign that they have bed bugs is finding bites in the morning that weren’t there the night before. They would be correct about that, but you can’t assume that you do not have bed bugs if you do not have bites. Some people don’t react at all to bed bug bites—no redness, no swelling, no itching—while others can have reactions severe enough to require antihistimines. Some people even develop such a sensitivity to the toxins in a bed bug bite that they have a reaction without being bitten—they simply have to be exposed to the bodies or skeletons of bed bugs.
A bed bug infestation can also be identified by a smell resembling over-ripe raspberries, although this probably doesn’t come into play until the population becomes quite large. Dogs have been trained to sniff out bed bugs with some success, but they’re not widely used yet.
Where To Look For Bed Bugs
The Bed Area
You might think this one is easy, but if it was nobody would be panicking about bed bugs! The bed itself offers ideal nesting, breeding and eating grounds. Mattresses have those large piped seams along the edges, and the little buttons that hold quilting are roomy underneath. Also, most mattresses of any age will typically develop a few rips and tears into which they can burrow. So these are all obvious places to inspect.
- Check the Bed Mattress: Bed bugs obviously nest in beds (especially the mattress area). But that’s not necessarily the only place to look.
- Close to the Bed: The adult insect is about as thin as a credit card, and they like to hide when they’re not out feeding. However, they need to be within a few feet of their food source.
- Check Different Bed Sections: But if for some reason the mattress is not infested, the headboard, frame and box spring are likely candidates. If the bed is made of wood, there are going to be all kinds of little knots and whorls offering a dark sanctuary for a bed bug and family. The screws holding everything together offer little recesses that will nicely hold some eggs or a bug or two. Intersections of slats and L-shaped pieces are roomy accommodations.
Areas Near The Bed
Once you’ve inspected the bed, keep going, whether or not you already identified a bed bug infestation there. Before you start to treat the bugs, you need to know every place they’re hiding.
If you have wallpaper in the bedroom (or even just those accent strips along the top or at wainscoting height), check it for tears and raised edges where bed bugs might have found a home.
Also check any window and door casings near the bed, and the baseboards and carpet/wall joint. Bed bugs prefer wood, so even if they turned up their nose at your bed, they might have decided that being within walking distance of the bed was good enough. Wood floors under the bed would be a good candidate also—the bugs don’t mind climbing up the bed legs to eat.
The Living Room
Most of us really don’t realize how much time we spend resting at home. In front of the TV, knitting, or visiting with friends in the living room or entertainment area, we are just as immobile and attractive to a feeding bed bug as when we are asleep. If for some reason your bedroom seemed inhospitable to a bed bug, he might find a workable alternative in the living room.
So check couches, sofas, easy chairs as diligently as you covered the bed. Remember the window casings and draperies, if they’re near the places where you and your family usually chill out in the evenings.
Making a very thorough inspection is important if you’re serious about finding any bed bugs in your home. If you are lucky enough to be catching the beginning of a population, there will not be a lot of spots all over where bed bug signs are apparent. If the infestation has gained a pretty good foothold, you will find many areas that show evidence of the bugs. Which situation you prefer should guide how thoroughly you search.
You should take the bed apart and stand each piece so that all sides can be viewed in good light. If your box spring has that gauzy dust cover stapled to the bottom, you should remove it to look inside.
Pull back mattress seams and disassemble bed frames so you can be sure you’re peering into every crevice that’s big enough to slip a credit card into.
Call A Professional
Of course, you might be too busy with work and family obligations to mount this search effort. Pest control professionals are available to do both the searching and the destroying for you, so if you can’t do it yourself, go ahead and find one that has experience and references for successful bed bug treatment.
How To Prevent A Bed Bug Infestation
As mentioned earlier, you probably can’t prevent bed bugs from entering your home. This is a new fact of life, even though it’s a repeat from an earlier era.
But you can prevent a bed bug infestation using some common sense and a little discipline.
There are 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.
- If you don’t mind potentially offending guests, ask them to leave backpacks, shoes, jackets, bags, etc. in the entryway or other enclosed area.
- Reduce clutter in areas of your home where bed bugs like to stay. This makes it easier to clean and inspect on a regular basis.
- Repair cracks in plaster and wood, and seal up wallpaper that’s peeling or damaged.
- Invest in a mattress encasement, which presents one four-sided surface for all the most inviting places in your bed (mattress and box spring). This doesn’t necessarily drive away bed bugs, but it forces them to hide in easy-to-inspect parts of the enclosure.
- If you’re really worried about bed bugs, redecorate to make it easier to identify and eradicate an infestation. Replace drapes with shades, move furniture away from walls, get light-colored items to replace dark ones.
- Inspect all likely areas on a regular basis to catch the problem early.
Develop A Preventive Maintenance Schedule
Another idea to prevent a bed bug infestation is to choose a pest control company that specializes in non-toxic or non-chemical pest control methods. There are a few products, like diatomaceous earth, that work to kill bed bugs by destroying their ability to retain moisture—it dehydrates them.
With either you or the company’s service staff periodically checking your home for bed bugs, you’ll have a plan in place to zap the bugs at their first appearance.
Dealing with a bug infestation of any kind is never fun. It would be nice if the pest control industry were able to come up with an effective, long-lasting bed bug remedy, but pesticides and humans have not had a happy history. Nobody wants to jump into something new without being sure it’s safe.
In the meantime, it’s likely the bed bug problem will only continue to worsen. We’ll be reading about bed bugs in schools and health-care facilities, and it will be harder than ever to keep them away from our homes.
But using the information above and working together with your local pest-control agencies, you should be able to stay on top of a potential infestation and keep it from getting out of hand.