How Bed Bugs Occur

What Attracts Bedbugs to Human Environments?

  • B.A., Political Science, Rutgers University

Once considered a pest of the past, bedbugs now make regular headlines as they infest homes, hotels, and dormitories worldwide. As bedbugs spread, more people worry about them and want to know what causes a bedbug infestation.

Though it might seem as if bedbug infestations are on the rise, historical context indicates that bedbugs and other bloodsucking parasites have been associated with humans for thousands of years. Throughout that history, people have endured them feeding on their blood. Bedbugs all but disappeared when people started using DDT and other pesticides to keep insects out of their homes. Although news headlines suggest bedbugs are conquering the world, the reality is that bedbug infestations are still at historically low numbers.

Why are they called bedbugs? Once they settle into your home, they congregate where you spend a lot of sedentary time: chairs, couches, and especially beds. They are attracted to you by the carbon dioxide in the air you breathe out, and you do a lot of breathing over the hours you’re in bed. Then they feed on your blood.

Bedbugs Don’t Care If You’re Clean or Dirty

Contrary to popular belief, there is no association between bedbugs and filth. They feed on human and animal blood, and as long as a source of blood is available to them, they will happily take up residence in even the most pristine home.

Being poor doesn’t put you at greater risk for bedbugs, and having wealth doesn’t immunize you from a bedbug infestation. Although poverty doesn’t cause bedbugs, impoverished communities may lack the resources needed to control infestations, making them more persistent and pervasive in such areas.

Bedbugs Are Excellent Hitchhikers

For bedbugs to infest your home, they have to hitch a ride on someone or something. They don’t usually stay on their human hosts after feeding, but they might hide in clothing and inadvertently go along for the ride to a new location. Most often, bedbugs travel in luggage after someone has stayed in an infested hotel room. Bedbugs may even infest theaters and other public spaces and spread to new locations via purses, backpacks, coats, or hats.

Bedbugs Go Where the Action Is

Since bedbugs travel by hitchhiking, infestations are more common in places with high rates of turnover in the human population: apartment buildings, dormitories, homeless shelters, hotels and motels, and military barracks. Any time you have a lot of people coming and going, there’s an increased risk that someone will carry a few bedbugs into the building. In general, owners of single-family homes have a lower risk of getting bedbugs.

Bedbugs Hide in Clutter

Once in your home, bedbugs scurry quickly to select a new hiding place; in beds and other furniture, behind baseboards, under wallpaper, or inside switch plates. Then it’s just a matter of time before they begin multiplying. A single female may arrive at your doorstep already carrying enough eggs to produce hundreds of offspring. While filth does not benefit bedbugs, clutter does. The more cluttered your home is, the more hiding places there are for bedbugs and the harder it will be to get rid of them.

Bedbugs

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Bedbugs are small, oval, brownish insects that live on the blood of animals or humans. Adult bedbugs have flat bodies about the size of an apple seed. After feeding, however, their bodies swell and are a reddish color.

Bedbugs do not fly, but they can move quickly over floors, walls, and ceilings. Female bedbugs may lay hundreds of eggs, each of which is about the size of a speck of dust, over a lifetime.

Immature bedbugs, called nymphs, shed their skins five times before reaching maturity and require a meal of blood before each shedding. Under favorable conditions the bugs can develop fully in as little as a month and produce three or more generations per year.

Although they are a nuisance, they are not thought to transmit diseases.

Where Bed Bugs Hide

Bedbugs may enter your home undetected through luggage, clothing, used beds and couches, and other items. Their flattened bodies make it possible for them to fit into tiny spaces, about the width of a credit card. Bedbugs do not have nests like ants or bees, but tend to live in groups in hiding places. Their initial hiding places are typically in mattresses, box springs, bed frames, and headboards where they have easy access to people to bite in the night.

Over time, however, they may scatter through the bedroom, moving into any crevice or protected location. They may also spread to nearby rooms or apartments.

Because bedbugs live solely on blood, having them in your home is not a sign of dirtiness. You are as likely to find them in immaculate homes and hotel rooms as in filthy ones.

When Bedbugs Bite

Bedbugs are active mainly at night and usually bite people while they are sleeping. They feed by piercing the skin and withdrawing blood through an elongated beak. The bugs feed from three to 10 minutes to become engorged and then crawl away unnoticed.

Most bedbug bites are painless at first, but later turn into itchy welts. Unlike flea bites that are mainly around the ankles, bedbug bites are on any area of skin exposed while sleeping. Also, the bites do not have a red spot in the center like flea bites do.

People who don’t realize they have a bedbug infestation may attribute the itching and welts to other causes, such as mosquitoes. To confirm bedbug bites, you must find and identify the bugs themselves.

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Signs of Infestation

If you wake up with itchy areas you didn’t have when you went to sleep, you may have bedbugs, particularly if you got a used bed or other used furniture around the time the bites started. Other signs that you have bedbugs include:

  • Blood stains on your sheets or pillowcases
  • Dark or rusty spots of bedbug excrement on sheets and mattresses, bed clothes, and walls
  • Bedbug fecal spots, egg shells, or shed skins in areas where bedbugs hide
  • An offensive, musty odor from the bugs’ scent glands

If you suspect an infestation, remove all bedding and check it carefully for signs of the bugs or their excrement. Remove the dust cover over the bottom of the box springs and examine the seams in the wood framing. Peel back the fabric where it is stapled to the wood frame.

Also, check the area around the bed, including inside books, telephones or radios, the edge of the carpet, and even in electrical outlets. Check your closet, because bedbugs can attach to clothing. If you are uncertain about signs of bedbugs, call an exterminator, who will know what to look for.

If you find signs of infestation, begin steps to get rid of the bugs and prevent their return.

Bedbug Treatments

Getting rid of bedbugs begins with cleaning up the places where bedbugs live. This should include the following:

  • Clean bedding, linens, curtains, and clothing in hot water and dry them on the highest dryer setting. Place stuffed animals, shoes, and other items that can’t be washed in the dryer and run on high for 30 minutes.
  • Use a stiff brush to scrub mattress seams to remove bedbugs and their eggs before vacuuming.
  • Vacuum your bed and surrounding area frequently. After vacuuming, immediately place the vacuum cleaner bag in a plastic bag and place in garbage can outdoors.
  • Encase mattress and box springs with a tightly woven, zippered cover to keep bedbugs from entering or escaping. Bedbugs may live up to a year without feeding, so keep the cover on your mattress for at least a year to make sure all bugs in the mattress are dead.
  • Repair cracks in plaster and glue down peeling wallpaper to get rid of places bedbugs can hide.
  • Get rid of clutter around the bed.

If your mattress is infested, you may want to get rid of it and get a new one, but take care to rid the rest of your home of bedbugs or they will infest your new mattress.

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Bedbug Extermination

While cleaning up infested areas will be helpful in controlling bedbugs, getting rid of them usually requires chemical treatments. Because treating your bed and bedroom with insecticides can be harmful, it is important to use products that can be used safely in bedrooms. Do not treat mattresses and bedding unless the label specifically says you can use them on bedding.

Generally it is safest and most effective to hire an experienced pest control professional for bedbug extermination.

Sources

University of Kentucky College of Agriculture: "Bed Bugs."

Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet: "Bed Bugs."

The New York City Department of Heath and Mental Hygiene: "Stop Bed Bugs Safely."

University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension Lancaster County: "Managing Bed Bugs."

Bed Bugs FAQs

What are bed bugs?

Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) are small, flat, parasitic insects that feed solely on the blood of people and animals while they sleep. Bed bugs are reddish-brown in color, wingless, range from 1mm to 7mm (roughly the size of Lincoln’s head on a penny), and can live several months without a blood meal.

Where are bed bugs found?

Bed bugs are found across the globe from North and South America, to Africa, Asia and Europe. Although the presence of bed bugs has traditionally been seen as a problem in developing countries, it has recently been spreading rapidly in parts of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other parts of Europe. Bed bugs have been found in five-star hotels and resorts and their presence is not determined by the cleanliness of the living conditions where they are found.

Bed bug infestations usually occur around or near the areas where people sleep. These areas include apartments, shelters, rooming houses, hotels, cruise ships, buses, trains, and dorm rooms. They hide during the day in places such as seams of mattresses, box springs, bed frames, headboards, dresser tables, inside cracks or crevices, behind wallpaper, or any other clutter or objects around a bed. Bed bugs have been shown to be able to travel over 100 feet in a night but tend to live within 8 feet of where people sleep.

Do bed bugs spread disease?

Bed bugs are not known to spread disease. Bed bugs can be an annoyance because their presence may cause itching and loss of sleep. Sometimes the itching can lead to excessive scratching that can sometimes increase the chance of a secondary skin infection.

What health risks do bed bugs pose?

A bed bug bite affects each person differently. Bite responses can range from an absence of any physical signs of the bite, to a small bite mark, to a serious allergic reaction. Bed bugs are not considered to be dangerous; however, an allergic reaction to several bites may need medical attention.

What are the signs and symptoms of a bed bug infestation?

One of the easiest ways to identify a bed bug infestation is by the tell-tale bite marks on the face, neck, arms, hands, or any other body parts while sleeping. However, these bite marks may take as long as 14 days to develop in some people so it is important to look for other clues when determining if bed bugs have infested an area. These signs include:

  • the bed bugs’ exoskeletons after molting,
  • bed bugs in the fold of mattresses and sheets,
  • rusty–colored blood spots due to their blood-filled fecal material that they excrete on the mattress or nearby furniture, and
  • a sweet musty odor.

How do I know if I’ve been bitten by a bed bug?

It is hard to tell if you’ve been bitten by a bed bug unless you find bed bugs or signs of infestation. When bed bugs bite, they inject an anesthetic and an anticoagulant that prevents a person from realizing they are being bitten. Most people do not realize they have been bitten until bite marks appear anywhere from one to several days after the initial bite. The bite marks are similar to that of a mosquito or a flea — a slightly swollen and red area that may itch and be irritating. The bite marks may be random or appear in a straight line. Other symptoms of bed bug bites include insomnia, anxiety, and skin problems that arise from profuse scratching of the bites.

Because bed bug bites affect everyone differently, some people may have no reaction and will not develop bite marks or any other visible signs of being bitten. Other people may be allergic to the bed bugs and can react adversely to the bites. These allergic symptoms can include enlarged bite marks, painful swellings at the bite site, and, on rare occasions, anaphylaxis.

How did I get bed bugs?

Bed bugs are experts at hiding. Their slim flat bodies allow them to fit into the smallest of spaces and stay there for long periods of time, even without a blood meal. Bed bugs are usually transported from place to place as people travel. The bed bugs travel in the seams and folds of luggage, overnight bags, folded clothes, bedding, furniture, and anywhere else where they can hide. Most people do not realize they are transporting stow-away bed bugs as they travel from location to location, infecting areas as they travel.

Who is at risk for getting bed bugs?

Everyone is at risk for getting bed bugs when visiting an infected area. However, anyone who travels frequently and shares living and sleeping quarters where other people have previously slept has a higher risk of being bitten and or spreading a bed bug infestation.

How are bed bugs treated and prevented?

Bed bug bites usually do not pose a serious medical threat. The best way to treat a bite is to avoid scratching the area and apply antiseptic creams or lotions and take an antihistamine. Bed bug infestations are commonly treated by insecticide spraying. If you suspect that you have an infestation, contact your landlord or professional pest control company that is experienced with treating bed bugs. The best way to prevent bed bugs is regular inspection for the signs of an infestation.

This information is not meant to be used for self-diagnosis or as a substitute for consultation with a health care provider. If you have any questions about the parasites described above or think that you may have a parasitic infection, consult a health care provider.

Department of Health

Bed Bugs – What They Are and How to Control Them

Bed bugs have been around for thousands of years. They feed on blood, but are not known to spread any diseases to humans. Some people can be allergic to their bites. Getting rid of a bed bug infestation is not easy, but there are steps you can take to control the problem. There are also steps you can take to avoid bringing bed bugs home.

What are bed bugs?

How can bed bugs get into my home?

  • They can come from other infested areas or from used furniture. They can hitch a ride in luggage, purses, backpacks, or other items placed on soft or upholstered surfaces.
  • They can travel between rooms in multi-unit buildings, such as apartment complexes and hotels.

How can I avoid bringing bed bugs into my home?

  • When staying in a hotel, place your bag on a suitcase stand rather than on the bed or floor. Keep the rack away from walls or furniture. When returning home, wash the clothes from your trip and put them in a hot dryer.
  • Inspect new and used furniture before bringing it inside. Look in seams, tufts and under cushions.

How do I know if I have a bed bug problem?

  • You can see the bed bugs themselves, their shed skins, or their droppings in mattress seams and other items in the bedroom.
  • There may also be blood stains on sheets.

How do I control a bed bug problem in my home?

It can be done, but it usually requires what is called an "integrated pest management" (IPM) approach. This combines techniques that pose the lowest risk to your health and the environment. Try these strategies:

  • Clean and get rid of clutter, especially in your bedroom.
  • Move your bed away from walls or furniture.
  • Vacuum molding, windows and floors every day. Vacuum sides and seams of mattresses, box springs and furniture. Empty the vacuum or the bag immediately and dispose of outside in a sealed container or bag.
  • Wash sheets, pillow cases, blankets and bed skirts and put them in a hot dryer for at least 30 minutes. Consider using mattress and box spring covers –the kind used for dust mite control–and put duct tape over the zippers.
  • Seal cracks and crevices and any openings where pipes or wires come into the home.

Should I also try pesticides?

Pesticides may not be effective and can be dangerous if used improperly. If you decide to use pesticides, follow these rules:

  • Only use pesticides that are registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (look for the U.S. EPA Registration Number on the label) and make sure they are labeled to control bed bugs.
  • Do not apply pesticides directly to your body (there are no repellents registered to control bed bugs that can be used on the human body).
  • Do not use outdoor pesticides indoors.
  • If you decide to hire a pest control company, make sure they have experience with bed bugs. They should follow the steps of IPM, along with any pesticide application. Use a company that is registered and employs licensed applicators. The Department of Environmental Conservation has a list of registered companies.

It takes time and persistence to get rid of bed bugs, and in some cases, the cooperation of landlords, neighbors and others. It can be physically and emotionally exhausting. It can also be expensive when pest control companies are called in. Just remember – bed bugs are more of a nuisance than a health concern and, with vigilance, you can avoid or deal with infestations.

See the following for more information on bed bug biology and control measures:

Photo courtesy of Dr. Harold Harlan, Armed Forces Pest Management Board Image Library

What Causes Bed Bugs

Bed bugs often appear even in new apartments that are equipped with the all modern conveniences. Certainly, the owners of clean houses are puzzled about why parasites have inhabited their apartment. Moreover, how have they penetrated into their dwelling? There are several causes of bed bugs appearance in the apartment.

The thing is that it does not matter how carefully cleanliness is maintained. The main and the only target of bed bugs is a human being (or sometimes small-sized animals). Thus, they can settle in the places where people spend nighttime.

To avoid bed bugs penetration into the house you should always stay alert and monitor the subtle changes that happen in the apartment. Also, from time to time it is useful to take prophylactic measures and apply insecticide on the perimeter of the possible entry points of insects. It is also recommended to communicate with your neighbors and pay attention to the condition of their apartments.

Additionally, bed bugs can come to your house by chance. In this case, it depends on the owner’s wish to mind all the possible ways of their penetration. Therefore, it is important to understand what causes bed bugs appearance to be able to protect yourself from these parasites when needed.

What Causes Bed Bugs in an Apartment?

It is difficult to answer the question about where bed bugs come from. It depends on the flat location, the presence of parasites at neighbors’ apartments, or the owners’ recent trips by train or someone else’s car. There are many ways of how these insects penetrate into the house; thus, bed bugs causes may be different.

  • In most cases, bugs come from neighboring premises. It is especially typical for old buildings. Insects can crawl through a damaged wall, cracks or the outer wall of the house. Also, bed bugs often come through ventilation shafts. They can survive without food for quite a long time. Thus, long travels are not a problem for them. Insects’ body shape and small size facilitate their penetration into small holes and cracks. If a house is located in the countryside, bed bugs can often come to people from small-sized farm animals. In fact, the thick skin of a rabbit or a goat is not so attractive to these blood-sucking insects as the human one.
  • You can “catch” a bed bug and transfer it to your apartment having spent a night outside your house. Hotels, friends’ apartments, as well as trains or railway stations are places where you can get these parasites. Bed bugs are small in size. Thus, even if an insect does not have time to hide when a person gets up and dresses, the bug’s presence will be unnoticeable on the cloth.
  • One more cause of bed bugs penetration is buying appliances. Bed bugs like to hide in the places that are protected from bright daylight and have a source of heat. Parasites often get into working system units. If such a unit is moved to be repaired or to a new apartment, bed bugs will quickly spread through a new place.
  • Another way of getting bed bugs is bringing them to the house on clothes. Parasites cannot bite through clothing, but they can hide in it. It is not always possible to notice the bloodsucker due to its tiny size. Therefore, it is very likely to bring one or more insect home, having visited an apartment inhabited by them. Also, another cause of bed bugs penetration can be a purchase of clothes infested by these parasites.
  • Furniture is one of the most common bed bugs causes. New pieces of furniture brought from the store are rarely infested, as parasites simply have nothing to eat there. However, exceptions may occur. In most cases, bed bugs can dwell in the furniture that was previously used. Parasites spread through its surface and cracks. It is necessary to check the furniture very carefully before buying it, especially the inside part of it.
  • Bed bugs can live on bats, birds, hamsters and rats if they have not very long and thick hair. These insects do not drink blood of cats or dogs because their skin is too thick for these parasites. For this reason, they prefer cattle.
  • Guests may bring bed bugs to the apartment too. People who live in the infested premises may bring these insects on their clothes. It happens that after flat renovation owners may reveal bugs “left” by workers. These parasites are very fond of the large crowds of people, so they often live in construction trailers and hostels. If hired workers live in such conditions, it is very likely that they will bring bed bugs to their workplace.

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