How Do Bed Bugs Spread

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.

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How Fast Can Bed Bugs Spread?

Silent Pests

Bed bugs have been in the news in recent years.After decades in which they seemed to have been almost eradicated, these pests are making a comeback. This is bad news for humans. According to the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky, bed bugs require a “blood meal” to survive, and they prefer the taste of human blood to that of other warm-blooded animals. These miniature vampires typically strike at night while people are sleeping, making a painless bite and sucking several drops of blood. Not known to carry infectious diseases, bed bugs nonetheless can cause allergic reactions to their saliva, and their bites leave itchy blotches similar to mosquito or flea bites. Hiding in inaccessible places, spreading out to all areas of a building and able to go months without feeding if necessary, they are difficult to find and control.

Once an infestation is underway, the property owner faces a tough eradication process that will require the services of a professional exterminator.This must be done sooner rather than later because they are hardy and they spread very quickly.

Reproduction

In the outdoors, bed bugs infest nests of birds, bats and other animals.These flightless insects, which measure 1/4 inch at maturity, enter a house, motel or apartment building by hiding in luggage, clothing or fabric. Once in place, the bugs set about reproducing, which they can do with impressive speed. Female bed bugs lay between one and five tiny eggs per day. Hatchlings are no bigger than a poppy seed.Once hatched, according to the School of Public Health at Harvard University, a baby bed bug or “nymph” requires only a single blood feast to molt and move into its next stage of development, which occurs five times before adulthood.

The nymphs reach maturity in a month or more, depending on conditions such as temperature (bed bugs like it warm) and the availability of blood. Assuming an average daily production of three viable eggs, simple math would indicate that at the end of one week, a single female would lay more than twenty eggs. Some weeks later, given a steady blood supply, these 20 bedbugs are adults. If half of them are females and each one lays twenty eggs in a week, this means a second generation of nymphs numbering approximately 200, all of which come from just one female bed bug. The production of three generations of bed bugs in a year is not uncommon.

Locational Spread

Bed bugs can spread from one room or apartment to another through door frames, windows, or holes or cracks in the walls, ceilings and floors. They can contaminate wood furniture by laying eggs in cracks and recesses, and when that furniture is moved, these eggs (which can stay viable for years) may hatch in a new location. Weeks or months without blood do not harm these tough insects.As a result, if bed bugs are found, one should consult an exterminator immediately.

Bed bugs have been in the news in recent years. After decades in which they seemed to have been almost eradicated, these pests are making a comeback. Not known to carry infectious diseases, bed bugs nonetheless can cause allergic reactions to their saliva, and their bites leave itchy blotches similar to mosquito or flea bites. These flightless insects, which measure 1/4 inch at maturity, enter a house, motel or apartment building by hiding in luggage, clothing or fabric. Some weeks later, given a steady blood supply, these 20 bedbugs are adults.

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

Do Bed Bugs Travel on People?

Travel Tips

Believe it or not, bed bugs can travel via human hosts. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images )

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They’re creepy, they’re crawly and they’re often quite difficult to spot. Bed bugs – blood-sucking, tiny parasites that dine on human and animal hosts – have become a concern worldwide due to their stealthy ways of getting around. Unfortunately, the little critters are more mobile than we would like to think.

Bed Bug Bites and Basics

Bed bugs – named for one of their favorite hangouts – tend to be found in linens, between cracks in mattresses and even in cracks and crevices in the floor. They leech off their human or animal hosts, with bed bug bites leaving scabby trails of rashes and marks across the skin. Because they are mostly active at night, it can take awhile for a person to notice that his home or hotel room has bed bugs.

How Bed Bugs Spread

Not everyone is aware that bed bugs can be spread via humans: if a person goes to a hotel room that has bed bugs, and the bed bugs hide out on the person or on the person’s luggage, the bed bugs can be spread to a new location. Because of this, no house is safe from a bed bug infestation. Bed bugs can spread from house to house, living in even the cleanest conditions; bed bugs are not a sign that a person’s home is dirty or unkempt.

Looking for Bed Bug Evidence

If you suspect that your home has been hit by bed bugs, look for the following telltale signs: small scabs or rashes in a line-like pattern on your skin, small fecal droppings or small blood smears on your sheets. The bed-bug bites will most likely be across your face, arms, or legs – the areas that are not covered by your pajamas as you sleep. Remember, though, that not all people will develop a rash if being bitten. You’ll also want to check for bugs in your mattress and in your luggage by closely inspecting them.

Eradicating Bed Bugs for Good

Though a variety of sprays and ointments are out there marketed as beg-bug killers, the truth is that many of these products do not work. You can attempt to rid yourself of these pests by vacuuming every inch of your apartment and by putting your linens in a dryer set on the highest setting. While it’s rare to find bed bugs on the clothes you’re wearing – they tend to fall off once you start moving – you should still wash any potentially contaminated clothing as well. A severe infestation will require the attention of a licensed exterminator; it can often take more than one visit from the exterminator to ensure that the bed bugs are really gone.

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Top 10 Myths about Bedbugs

The insects, making a comeback around the globe, cannot fly and are really not interested in hanging out on your body–but they do occasionally bite during the day

  • By Megan Scudellari on May 27, 2011

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Once a pest of the past, bedbugs now infest every state in the U.S..Cimex lectularius—small, flattened insects that feed solely on mammalian and avian blood—have been living with humans since ancient times. Abundant in the U.S. prior to World War II, bedbugs all but vanished during the 1940s and ’50s thanks to improvements in hygiene and the use of pesticides. In the past 10 years, however, the pests have staged a comeback worldwide—an outbreak after the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney was a harbinger of things to come. This revival may be the worst yet, experts say, due to densely populated urban areas, global travel and increasing pesticide resistance—something to consider as the summer travel season gets underway.

"By every metric that we use, it’s getting worse and worse," says Coby Schal, an entomologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Health authorities and pest control operators are regularly flooded with calls, and the epidemic may not have yet peaked. And because bedbugs are indoor pests, there are no high or low seasons throughout the year, he adds, only continual bombardment. "It’s just the beginning of the problem in the U.S.," Schal says.

Spreading rapidly with the bedbugs is a mass of misinformation about their biology and behavior. Straight from the experts, here are the facts behind some of the most notorious myths about the diminutive bloodsuckers.

Myth 1: Bedbugs can fly
Bedbugs lack wings, and therefore cannot fly. That is unless you put a blow dryer behind them, says Stephen Kells, a bedbug researcher at the University of Minnesota. Then they’ll fly about 1.2 meters. On their own, bedbugs crawl about a meter a minute, he says.

Myth 2: Bedbugs reproduce quickly
Compared with other insects, bedbugs are slow to reproduce: Each adult female produces about one egg per day; a common housefly lays 500 eggs over three to four days. Each bedbug egg takes 10 days to hatch and another five to six weeks for the offspring to develop into an adult.

Myth 3: Bedbugs can typically live a year without a meal
Scientists debate this point, but evidence suggests that at normal room temperature, about 23 degrees Celsius, bedbugs can only survive two to three months without a blood meal. But because they are cold-blooded, their metabolism will slow down in chillier climates, and the insects may live up to a year without feeding.

Myth 4: Bedbugs bite only at night
Although bedbugs are generally nocturnal, they’re like humans—if they’re hungry, they’ll get up and get something to eat. "If you go away to visit a friend for a week and you come back and sit down on the couch, even though it’s daytime the bedbugs will come looking for you," Schal says. Keeping a light on, then, unfortunately does not keep these tiny vampires away.

Myth 5: Bedbugs live exclusively in mattresses
"’Bedbug’ is such a misnomer," Kells says. "They should also be called pet bugs and suitcase bugs and train bugs and movie theater bugs." Bedbugs spread away from beds into living areas and can be seen on any surface, he says, including chairs, railings and ceilings.

Myth 6: Bedbugs prefer unsanitary, urban conditions
"Bedbugs are terribly nondiscriminatory," Schal says. Bedbugs can be found anywhere from ritzy high-rises to homeless shelters. The prevalence of the bugs in low-income housing is therefore not a result of the insect’s preference, but of dense populations and the lack of money to pay for proper elimination strategies. "Any location is vulnerable," Kells says. "But some people are going to have a harder time getting control of them because it is such an expensive treatment."

Myth 7: Bedbugs travel on our bodies
Bedbugs do not like heat, Kells says. They therefore do not stick in hair or on skin, like lice or ticks, and prefer not to remain in our clothes close to our bodily heat. Bedbugs are more likely to travel on backpacks, luggage, shoes and other items farther removed from our bodies.

Myth 8: Bedbugs transmit disease
Bedbug bites can lead to anxiety, sleeplessness and even secondary infections, but there have been no reported cases of bedbugs transmitting disease to humans. They do, however, harbor human pathogens: At least 27 viruses, bacteria, protozoa and more have been found in bedbugs, although these microbes do not reproduce or multiply within the insects. Canadian researchers announced (pdf) in the June issue ofEmerging Infectious Diseasesthat bedbugs isolated from three individuals in a Vancouver hospital carried methicillin-resistantStaphylococcus aureus, aka MRSA. Still, there have been no reported cases that the bugs actually transmit human disease.

Myth 9: We should bring back DDT
When the controversial pesticide DDT was banned in 1972, most bed bugs were already resistant to it, Schal says, and today’s populations are even more widely resistant thanks to the use of a new class of pesticides. Pyrethroids, the main class of pesticides used against bedbugs today, targets sodium channels in bedbug cells, just like DDT. Consequently, as bedbugs develop resistance to pyrethroids, they also become cross-resistant to DDT.

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