Good night, sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.
The popular children’s rhyme gets it right: Bedbugs do most commonly feed on humans at night while they’re sleeping (though they can sometimes bite during the day), and they’re the type of pest you really don’t want to have to deal with. (1)
Bedbugs (or Cimex lectularius and Cimex hemipterus, their scientific names) are blood-feeding parasites that can be found all around the world. You mostly hear about them in urban areas or places with a great deal of occupant turnover, such as hotels, apartment buildings, and college dormitories, because that’s where they spread most easily. (1)
Bedbugs were nearly extinct after World War II thanks to the use of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT). The United States banned DDT in 1972 because of its negative environmental effects, and the less-effective pesticides that came after it, along with a rise in international travel and immigration, has contributed to the bedbug resurgence we’re experiencing today. (3)
What Do Bedbugs Look Like, and How Do I Know I Have Them?
Bedbugs are reddish-brown insects that feed on blood, primarily blood from humans. (4) Bedbugs crawl, but cannot fly or jump like many other insects do. (1) Also unlike cockroaches and flies, bedbugs have no relationship with cleanliness and can be found in the cleanest homes and hotel rooms, says Scott Svenheim, an associate certified entomologist with Truly Nolen Pest Control in Tucson, Arizona.
“Many people believe that bedbugs are too small to see with the naked eye,” adds Jerry Lazarus, president of Braman Termite & Pest Elimination. Not so: Adult bedbugs range in size from 1 to 7 millimeters. But they’re very good at hiding. To spot them, you’ll have to catch them moving to or from their hiding spots, which can be hard to do, since they’re most active while people are sleeping. They have six legs and their bodies are small and flat, which makes it easy for them to hide within the cracks and crevices of your home.
Female bedbugs produce about one egg per day. The eggs are white and are very hard to see without magnification, Lazarus says. The eggs take about one week to hatch in rooms that are between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit (F). The nymphs that hatch from those eggs look like adult bedbugs, but they’re smaller and are translucent until they have their first blood meal, Svenheim says. (1) The nymphs take about five weeks to mature, and during those five weeks they shed their skin five times, each time after feeding. (5)
Learn More About How to Know You Have Bedbugs
Bedbug Bites Can Be Intensely Itchy — or You May Not Even Notice Them
Bedbugs are sneaky insects. They bite in the middle of the night (usually about one hour before dawn), injecting an anesthetic and an anticoagulant that makes it painless and unlikely that you’ll feel a thing. After feeding for about five minutes, the bugs will retreat back to their hiding places.
For most people, the first sign of bedbugs is bites on the body. The bites will show up in any place that’s exposed while you sleep, such as the arms, legs, back, and neck.
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You could have a single bite, but more often it’s three bites in a row, forming somewhat of a line—what’s colloquially called “breakfast, lunch, and dinner” and is a telltale sign of bedbugs.
Bites can look different from person to person. “In some people, they can cause allergic reactions, although some people don’t react at all,” Lazarus says. In most cases, a bedbug bite looks a lot like a mosquito bite — a red, itchy bump on your skin that appears within 24 hours of your being bitten.
Though the idea of having bedbugs in your home can be troubling, the bugs themselves don’t pose a threat to your health (nor do their bites). (1) “These bites can’t spread disease to humans, but they can be itchy and uncomfortable," says Steve Durham, president of EnviroCon Termite & Pest in Tomball, Texas.
You likely won’t need to visit a doctor as a result of getting bitten by a bedbug. (6) Usually, the bites will heal within two weeks on their own, though you may want to apply an anti-itch cream or corticosteroid cream to the area to relieve itchiness. (7)
If you experience an allergic reaction or the area shows signs of infection, such as if the area oozes pus, it may be time to visit a dermatologist. He or she will likely prescribe an antihistamine and corticosteroid to treat an allergic reaction, or an antiseptic or antibiotic ointment for an infection.
Learn More About Identifying and Treating Bedbug Bites
Bedbugs Are Notoriously Tough to Get Rid Of (But You CAN Do It)
“One of the main reasons people fear bedbug infestations more than most other pests is because they are notoriously tough to get rid of,” Durham says. That’s why many people turn to professionals for help. “Most do-it-yourself attempts end in failure and frustration, since over-the-counter products can be misapplied and infested areas can be easily missed,” Lazarus says. “Often, this means spending a lot of your own money and time and still having a problem.” (Plus, failure to correctly use DIY extermination products can be dangerous to your health and those you live with.)
If you decide to go the professional route, there are three common treatment options the pest control expert may take:
- Insecticide Application Use of insecticides is the most common route to get rid of bedbugs. Treating bedbugs this way requires preparation, such as washing bedding and clothing and placing items that can’t be washed in garbage bags out in the hot sun. Sometimes, a few rounds of insecticides are needed to get rid of the bedbug population entirely.
- Heat Remediation A pest control professional will heat the infected space to temperatures that kill bedbugs, usually between 120 and 130 degrees F. This method requires much less prep work than insecticide application and usually will successfully eliminate the bedbugs and the eggs on the first treatment, so there’s likely no need for a follow-up visit.
- Fumigation This option is less commonly available. It works by injecting a vacated building with a gas that kills the bedbugs inside.
You can also try to apply insecticides yourself, though the products available to professionals are usually more effective than those available to consumers. When choosing a product, look for one that is registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and specifically lists bedbugs on the label. (8) You’ll likely need to do a few rounds of treatment, because it can be very difficult to find and kill bedbug eggs.
To successfully get rid of bedbugs, you need to be extremely thorough. “Bedbugs are excellent at hiding and will be in places where most people wouldn’t check — behind peeling wallpaper, in the rails of drawers, in hollow curtain rods, and in electronics,” Lazarus says. If even just one bedbug is left behind, you’ll still be in trouble, Durham says.
Learn More About How to Get Rid of Bedbugs
The Insecticides Used to Kill Bedbugs Can Be Harmful to People (and Pets), Too, if Used Incorrectly
It’s important to approach bedbug treatment carefully, because insecticides that are used to kill bedbugs can also be harmful to you if you’re exposed to unsafe levels. Symptoms of unsafe pesticide exposure include vomiting, dizziness, headaches, and trouble breathing. (9)
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When they’re used safely and according to the label, insecticides shouldn’t pose a threat to you or any other family members or pets you live with, Lazarus says. Insecticides are sold as dusts, liquids, aerosols, and foggers. There are also organic and natural products on the market, though some research has found they’re not as effective at killing bedbugs as traditional insecticides. (10)
If you hire a professional to treat the bedbugs in your home, you’ll want to ask them a few safety-related questions, including:
- What insecticides do you plan to use? You can look up the products yourself (or consult your doctor or vet about them) to see if there are any precautions you need to take. (11)
- Do you have a list of references? Call the references to ask about their experience working with this company.
- Are you a certified, licensed pesticide applicator or a licensed technician?
- Do you use integrated pest management techniques? This effective approach attacks bedbugs from all angles and treats them with a combination of heat, steam, and insecticides. (12)
Watch out for insecticide products sold over the internet that come from outside the U.S. — they may contain ingredients that have been banned by the EPA, which could mean health (and potentially legal) issues for you. (13)
Learn More About How to Deal With Bedbugs Safely
To Prevent Getting Bedbugs, Be Smart About How They Spread
Bedbugs are excellent hitchhikers. They grab onto luggage and purses or find hiding spots within folded clothes to make it back to your home. Getting them is just bad luck. “There is no real reason one person would get bedbugs over someone else,” Svenheim says. “It’s just being in the wrong place at the wrong time where bedbugs exist.”
And they can exist everywhere, from restaurant booths to seats at the movie theater to changing rooms at the mall. “It’s really about being educated about what they are, how you can get them, and doing things the right way to prevent you from bringing them back to your house,” says Eric Braun, a board-certified entomologist and technical services manager for the national pest control company Rentokil.
There are some precautions you can take to minimize the chances that you’ll end up taking home a bedbug on your next trip.
- When you check into a hotel room or settle into a home rental, inspect the space for pepper-like stains on the bedsheets and mattress seams, Lazarus says. That’s a sign of bedbug activity. If you think your room may have bedbugs, ask for a new room that’s not next to or directly above or below your original room, Lazarus suggests.
- Keep your luggage away from the bed and off the floor. Braun says not to use luggage racks or unpack your clothing into the hotel room drawers. He says it’s safest to keep your luggage stored in the bathtub.
- If you notice bedbug bites while on your trip, be sure to wash the clothing from your suitcase (whether you wore it or not) and dry on hot for at least 30 minutes for the best chances to kill the bugs before they infest your home — and use a portable steamer to apply heat to suitcases and any items that cannot go in the dryer, Lazarus says.
Frequent travelers aren’t the only ones at risk of picking up a hitchhiking bedbug. People who live in apartment buildings and dormitories also have an increased risk (because higher rates of turnover and closer living quarters increase the chances bedbugs will have the opportunity to spread). Because of this, many universities recommend students wrap their mattress and box spring with a protective cover or mattress encasement to keep bedbugs out. (14) Look for ones made of high-quality cloth, which won’t tear as easily as plastic.
People living in apartments should also consider adding a door sweep to their front door to minimize the chances that bedbugs will sneak in from the communal hallway. (15) Keeping cracks around electrical work or plumbing filled also gives the bedbugs fewer places to break in. (16)
Finally, be careful not to bring bedbugs into your home through secondhand furniture by inspecting the items before you purchase them.
Learn More About How to Prevent Bedbugs
Having Bedbugs Can Come With an Emotional Toll. Here’s What to Do About It
Bedbug infestations are treatable, and the bugs themselves don’t pose a threat to your health, but having to deal with bedbugs can be very stressful.
“Having an actual bedbug infestation is pretty psychologically traumatizing in general,” says Katherine Maloy, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health in New York City. “It’s extremely overwhelming — even just the logistics of getting your home cleaned — and it takes a very long time because the bugs have a long dormancy period in which they can go without food.” In the right conditions, bedbugs can live for more than a year without feeding.
Wondering if they’re truly gone or not can cause a lot of anxiety. People dealing with bedbugs may also experience: (17,18)
- Difficulty sleeping
- Social isolation
RELATED: When Doctors Diagnose ‘Bedbug Psychosis’
Additionally, dealing with bedbugs can make existing mental health issues worse. Researchers say the toll the experience takes on one’s mental health is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. (19)
Dr. Maloy says if you’re dealing with bedbugs, talk to someone you trust, and visit a professional if it’s really taking a toll on your life. “It’s the same as with anything else that’s causing distress,” Maloy says. “If it’s interfering with your functioning, if it’s interfering with your life, it’s interfering with your relationships and your work, if you’re not able to function because you’re not sleeping,” she says — it’s time to seek help.
Learn More About Getting Over the Mental Distress Bedbugs Can Bring