How Did 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.

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.

Bedbugs

Bedbugs are small insects that often live on furniture or bedding. Their bites can be itchy, but do not usually cause other health problems.

Check if it’s bedbugs

Jeff March / Alamy Stock Photo

Bedbugs can hide in many places, including on bed frames, mattresses, clothing, furniture, behind pictures and under loose wallpaper.

Signs of bedbugs include:

  • bites – often on areas exposed while sleeping, like the face, neck and arms
  • spots of blood on your bedding – from the bites or from squashing a bedbug
  • small brown spots on bedding or furniture (bedbug poo)

Bedbug bites can be red and itchy. They’re often in a line or cluster.

Otto Pleska / Alamy Stock Photo

Some people have a reaction to the bites. They can be very itchy and there may be painful swelling.

How you can treat bedbug bites

Bedbug bites usually clear up on their own in a week or so.

Things you can do include:

  • putting something cool, like a clean, damp cloth, on the affected area to help with the itching and any swelling
  • keeping the affected area clean
  • not scratching the bites to avoid getting an infection

You can ask a pharmacist about:

  • using a mild steroid cream like hydrocortisone cream to ease bedbug bites (children under 10 and pregnant women should get advice from a doctor before using hydrocortisone cream)
  • antihistamines – these may help if the bites are very itchy and you’re unable to sleep

Non-urgent advice: See a GP if:

  • the bites are still very painful, swollen or itchy after trying treatments from a pharmacist
  • the redness around the bites is spreading

You may have an infection and need treatment with antibiotics.

Coronavirus update: how to contact a GP

It’s still important to get help from a GP if you need it. To contact your GP surgery:

  • visit their website
  • use the NHS App
  • call them

How to get rid of bedbugs

contact your local council or pest control service – it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get rid of bedbugs yourself because they can be resistant to some insecticides

wash affected bedding and clothing – use a hot wash (60C) or tumble dry on a hot setting for at least 30 minutes

put affected clothing and bedding in a plastic bag and put it in the freezer (-16C) for 4 days (alternative to hot washing)

clean and vacuum regularly – bedbugs are found in both clean and dirty places, but regular cleaning will help you spot them early

do not keep clutter around your bed

do not bring secondhand furniture indoors without carefully checking it first

do not take luggage or clothing indoors without checking it carefully if you have come from somewhere where you know there were bedbugs

Page last reviewed: 21 January 2019
Next review due: 21 January 2022

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

Everything You Need to Know About Bed Bug Bites

Bedbugs are small insects that feed on blood from humans or animals. They can live in your bed, furniture, carpet, clothing, and other belongings. They’re most active at night, feeding on people while they sleep.

Bedbugs can be 1 to 7 millimeters long. They’re flat, oval-shaped, and reddish-brown in color. They don’t have wings, so they rely on animals or humans to carry them from one place to another.

Although bedbug bites are rarely dangerous, they can be very itchy. In some cases, they become infected or cause an allergic reaction.

If you suspect there are bedbugs living in your home, it’s important to get rid of them.

Some people don’t develop noticeable symptoms from bedbug bites. When symptoms do develop, the bites tend to be:

  • red and swollen, with a dark spot at the center of each bite
  • arranged in lines or clusters, with multiple bites grouped together
  • itchy

Bedbugs can bite any part of your body. But they’ll usually bite areas of skin that are exposed while you sleep, such as your face, neck, arms, and hands. In some cases, the bites may develop into fluid-filled blisters.

If a bedbug bites your skin, you won’t feel it right away because the bugs excrete a tiny amount of anesthetic before feeding on people. It can sometimes take a few days for symptoms of bed bug bites to develop.

Bedbug bites often become noticeably red and swollen. Multiple bites may appear in a line or cluster in a small area of your body. The bites tend to be itchy. They may cause a burning sensation.

If you have bedbugs living in your home, they may not feed every single night. In fact, they can go multiple days without eating. It might take a few weeks to realize that the bites are part of a larger pattern.

Scratching bug bites can cause them to bleed or become infected. Learn more about the symptoms of an infected bug bite.

If you suspect there are bedbugs in your home, look for signs of them in your bed and other areas. For example, they often hide in:

  • mattresses
  • box springs
  • bed frames
  • headboards
  • pillows and bedding
  • cracks or seams of furniture
  • carpeting around baseboards
  • spaces behind light switches and electrical outlet plates
  • curtains
  • clothes

You may see the bugs themselves. You may also find drops of blood or small black dots of bug droppings in your bed. If you find bedbugs, call your landlord or a pest control company.

To contain and eliminate the infestation, it helps to:

  • Vacuum and steam-clean your floors, mattresses, furniture, and appliances.
  • Launder your linens, drapes, and clothing using the hottest settings of your washing machine and dryer.
  • Seal items that can’t be laundered in plastic bags and store them for several days at 0°F (-17°C) or for several months at warmer temperatures.
  • Heat items that can be safely heated to 115°F (46°C).
  • Fill gaps around your baseboards and cracks in furniture with caulking.

Several insecticides are also available to kill bedbugs. A pest control company may have access to insecticides or equipment that might be difficult for you to buy, rent, or use on your own. Find more tips for managing bedbug infestations and learn when to call a professional.

In most cases, bedbug bites get better within one to two weeks. To relieve symptoms, it may help to:

  • Apply anti-itch cream or calamine lotion to bites.
  • Take an oral antihistamine to reduce itching and burning.
  • Use an over-the-counter pain reliever to relieve swelling and pain.

In rare cases, bedbug bites can cause allergic reactions. If you develop signs or symptoms of a serious allergic reaction, call 911.

Sometimes, bedbug bites can cause an infection known as cellulitis. To reduce the risk of infection, wash the bites with soap and water and try not to scratch them. Learn when it’s time to visit your doctor for treatment.

In addition to over-the-counter medications, there are several home remedies that may help relieve the symptoms of bedbug bites.

To soothe bitten areas, it may help to apply one or more of the following:

  • a cold cloth or an ice pack wrapped in a towel
  • a thin paste of baking soda and water
  • certain types of essential oils

Although more research is needed, some studies suggest that camphor oil, chamomile oil, or some other types of essential oil may help relieve bug bites. Take a moment to learn more about seven essential oils that might help treat bites.

If you suspect that your baby or child has been bitten by bedbugs, check their sheets, mattress, bed frame, and nearby baseboards for signs of the bugs.

To treat bedbug bites on your baby or child, wash the bites with soap and water. Consider applying a cold compress or calamine lotion.

Talk to your child’s doctor or pharmacist before using topical steroid creams or oral antihistamines to treat the bites. Some medications may not be safe for babies or young children.

If your child is old enough to understand your instructions, ask them not to scratch the bites. To prevent scratching, it may also help to trim your child’s nails and cover the bites with a bandage.

Bedbug bites and fleabites are quite similar in appearance. Both can cause red bumps to form on your skin. Both can be very itchy.

When fleas bite you, they typically bite the lower half or your body or warm, moist areas around joints. For example, they may bite:

  • your feet
  • your legs
  • your armpits
  • the inside of your elbows or knees

Bedbugs are more likely to bite upper parts of your body, such as your:

If you suspect that bedbugs or fleas have bitten you, check for signs of the bugs in your home. Bedbugs often hide in the seams of mattresses, cracks of bed frames and headboards, and baseboards around beds. Fleas tend to live on family pets and in carpet or upholstered furniture.

If you find bedbugs or fleas, it’s important to treat your home or pet to get rid of them. Get the information you need to identify and treat infestations of these pests.

Bedbug bites and mosquito bites can both be red, swollen, and itchy. If you have a line of bites that appear in a small area of your body, they’re more likely to be bedbug bites. Bites that appear in no apparent pattern are more likely to be mosquito bites.

Both bedbug bites and mosquito bites tend to get better on their own, within a week or two. To relieve itching and other symptoms, it may help to apply a cold compress, calamine lotion, or other topical treatments. Taking an oral antihistamine can help as well.

It’s also possible to confuse bedbug bites with spider bites, ant bites, or other insect bites. Find out more about the differences between these types of bites.

Sometimes, people mistake hives for bedbug bites. Hives are red bumps that can develop on your skin as a result of an allergic reaction or other cause. Like bedbug bites, they’re often itchy.

If you develop red bumps on your skin that get larger, change shape, or spread from one part of your body to another in a short period of time, they’re more likely to be hives.

A small group or line of bumps that appear on one part of your body without changing shape or location are more likely to be bedbug bites.

If you develop hives along with breathing difficulties, dizziness, nausea, or vomiting, get medical help right away. You might be experiencing anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. Learn more about anaphylaxis and other potential causes of hives.

Spider bites can be red and itchy, much like bedbug bites. But unlike bedbugs, spiders rarely bite more than once. If you only have one bite on your body, it’s probably not from bedbugs.

Spider bites often take longer to heal than other types of bug bites. Some spider bites can cause serious damage to your skin, especially if they get infected. To reduce the risk of infection, wash any bug bites with soap and water.

Some spiders are poisonous. If you suspect a poisonous spider has bitten you, get medical help right away.

Bedbugs can live in any home or public area. But they’re common in places that have a lot of people, a lot of turnover, and close quarters. You may be at increased risk for encountering bedbugs if you live or work in a:

  • hotel
  • hospital
  • homeless shelter
  • military barrack
  • college dorm
  • apartment complex
  • business office

Unlike some types of bugs, bedbugs don’t transmit diseases when they bite. But in some cases, bedbug bites can become infected. Potential signs and symptoms of an infection include:

  • pain and tenderness radiating from the bite
  • redness, swelling, or warmth around the bite
  • red streaks or spots near the bite
  • pus or drainage from the bite
  • dimpling of your skin
  • fever
  • chills

If have a bedbug allergy, you may also develop an allergic reaction after being bitten. This may cause painful swelling or intense itching around the bite. In some cases, it can also trigger a potentially life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis.

If you suspect that you’ve developed an infection or allergic reaction to a bedbug bite, contact your doctor. Get emergency medical care if you develop any of the following after being bitten:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • fever
  • chills
  • dizziness
  • trouble breathing

Bedbugs don’t just bite humans. They can also feed on family pets.

If you have a pet who’s been bitten by bedbugs, the bites will likely get better on their own. But in some cases, they might become infected. Make an appointment with a veterinarian if you suspect your pet has an infected bite.

If you hire a pest control expert to get rid of bedbugs in your home, let them know if you have a pet. Some insecticides may be safer for your pet than others. It’s also important to wash your pet’s bed, stuffed toys, and other accessories where bedbugs may be living.

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