Invasion of the Bedbugs

There are few house guests less welcome than bedbugs. They arrive uninvited and, like vampires, feast on human and animal blood during the dead of night. Bedbugs don’t live out their lives and discreetly slip away: They infest.

The bedbug population has exploded in recent years – they've been found in all 50 states and don't discriminate between high- or low-end venues. They can live in places you might not expect: offices, hotels, airplanes, movie theaters, dorms and mattress stores (to name a few). Bedbugs can make their way into your home by hitching a ride on your clothing, in your luggage or from soft goods and upholstered furniture purchased from any store.

The ugly truth is even your friends can bring these nasty creatures into your home. These days, we're all at risk for a bedbug invasion.

Bedbugs Bite

Bedbugs can feed on you and your family late at night when you are least aware of their presence. They are attracted to body warmth, find a comfortable spot and (there's no pretty way to say this) suck your blood while you're dreaming about happier things.

Some people are more affected by bedbug bites than others. In fact, you and members of your family may each have very different reactions to these insects. One family member may have no reaction at all, while others can have a full-blown allergic response.

The symptoms of bedbug bites vary. From mild itching to small raised bumps on the skin to severe welts or hives across the body, the effects of bedbug bites can mimic other types of insect bites and rashes. The presence of the bugs' saliva on the skin may cause immediate irritation. A full allergic reaction to the bites can take days to develop.

Bedbugs typically leave rows or clusters of bites; it's unlikely you've been bitten by a bedbug if you have a single bite mark. (Check for spiders or mosquitos.)

According to the Center for Disease Control, bedbugs are not known to spread disease.  Skin infections, however, can develop in and around the wounded area. If you can't stop the scratching, be sure to keep your hands clean. Calamine lotion can soothe the itch.

Finding What Lurks

Bedbugs are sneaky and shy. During the day they are typically tucked away in mattress seams, bedding folds, under carpeting and between walls. They can live just about anywhere and may not be apparent during a visual inspection.

About the size of an apple seed, flat-bodied and dark to reddish brown, adult bedbugs can be seen with the naked eye (if you're lucky enough to catch one unaware). There are other ways to determine their presence:

  • Small rust-colored spots or trails from their blood-filled fecal matter
  • Mahogany-colored exoskeletons left on surfaces as they molt
  • A sweet, unpleasant smell somewhat like musty, rotten fruit
  • Nighttime sightings under red light in an otherwise dark room
  • A dead or dying bug on any surface

Bedbugs don't fly or jump, but crawl into their lairs before you wake up. And they don't feed every day. You may wake with bites and not see another trace for days. Some can survive 6 months between feedings. They are truly a tricky breed of parasites.

Infestation or Localized Problem?

The best way to rid yourself of these insects is to catch them early and take them seriously. If they have a chance to breed, lay eggs or take hold in a wide area, you'll have a problem spanning months or even years before it's solved.

If you suspect you have a full bedbug infestation, call a professional bedbug exterminator immediately. Learn about his approach and discuss chemicals and other treatments. Research thoroughly and act quickly.

You may be lucky enough to catch the problem before it spreads. The bugs may be located only in your bedroom or on the couch, in your luggage or on your clothing. Take immediate action. If you don't, within a short time you'll be living with generations of these nasty creatures.

Eradication Through Temperature Extremes

Bedbugs can't abide extreme heat or cold. They'll die within several hours when temperatures are above 118°F. Temperatures at or below 0°F will kill bedbugs and their eggs in about 4 days. [] These temperatures must be reached throughout each article you're treating. Give the bedbugs several hours to reach the right temperature at their core before setting the timer.

Your home freezer may not cool to 0°F. At temperatures closer to 30°F, seal clothing and small items in plastic and keep them in the freezer for 40–50 days to kill the pests and their eggs.

Another effective way to deal with small surface infestations is to wash bedding, clothing and slipcovers in hot water and dry at high heat for at least 30 minutes (check labels to determine whether or not high heat is safe).

Obviously, it's impossible to put carpets, mattresses and furniture in the freezer or dryer. But you can bring the extreme temperatures to them.

Steam Away Those Bedbugs

Hot steam can penetrate soft surfaces, raising the temperature above tolerable levels for bedbugs. Most furniture, mattresses, box springs, fabrics and flooring can be safely steamed. Check labels or call the manufacturer before using steam to eradicate the pests.

The surface temperature needs to reach 160°F–180°F to effectively kill bedbugs. As you're steaming, use an infrared thermometer every few feet to make sure you are maintaining the heat at this lethal level. The heat will penetrate most soft surfaces 3–5 inches and reach into cracks in hardwood floors and baseboards up to 2.5 inches.

Remember: Only the bedbugs that are exposed to steam will be killed. It is likely that you'll need to repeat the treatment several times over the course of days or weeks to completely eliminate the pests.

Here's what to look for when you choose a steamer:

  • Water temperatures at 212°F–230°F
  • Consistent steam temperature
  • Nozzles and cushion brushes that distribute the pressurized steam (never use a pinpoint nozzle – you'll find yourself blowing the bugs onto other surfaces which will spread the problem)
  • A large water tank that gives you enough time to completely steam each surface

Each item will be damp after steaming. Direct fans toward each surface to dry them efficiently.

Once you've thoroughly and repeatedly steamed your mattress, box spring and pillows, consider sealing them with bedbug-proof encasements. Any remaining pests inside each item will not be able to feed and will eventually die. You'll also avoid a re-infestation by providing a barrier to entry by new bedbugs.

No Immunity

A bedbug infestation is embarrassing. For some reason there is a stigma attached to bedbugs even though they can be found in high-priced resorts and the cleanest homes. People who travel are at greater risk, as are those who live in close quarters with others.

As the bedbug population grows (some say the growth rate is over 5,000% since the 1990s), the likelihood of these uninvited guests entering your home increases. Here are some tips to avoid a full-blown infestation:

  • Inspect hotel rooms for evidence of bedbugs
  • Isolate your luggage when you arrive home and carefully inspect each seam and crevice
  • Wash your clothing in hot water
  • Freeze small items you suspect of coming in contact with bedbugs
  • Inspect your home for traces of bedbugs on a regular basis
  • Know what a bedbug bite looks like and take action quickly
  • When in doubt, contact a professional bedbug exterminator for a home inspection