Infestations of bed bugs are on the increase…
Human bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) are found all over the world and are constantly being dispersed via used furniture, luggage and bedding. There has been a significant increase in the number of bed bug infestations reported from homes, resort hotels, apartments and cruise ships. You should be able to identify bed bugs, understand how to prevent bed bugs and learn how to get rid of bed bugs if you do get infested.
How to identify bed bugs
Immature or young bed bugs are light yellow in color unless they have recently fed on blood and then they are darker in the middle. Even though young bed bugs are small, less than 1/5th of an inch, they can be readily seen with the naked eye. Adults are reddish brown and somewhat larger than their young. All bed bugs are wingless, oval and flattened in appearance. Bed bug eggs are tiny white and tubular-shaped. Bed bugs often cluster in crevices where all life stages can be found together.
Bed bugs are mostly active at night. This is when they leave their daytime resting place deep inside cracks and crevices to seek out a human blood meal. Adult male and female bed bugs, as well as their young feed on blood. By checking under the mattress you have the best opportunity to find bed bugs on the crawl. Bed bug bites are often two or three at a time and tiny blood spots are frequently deposited on the sheeting. Any nearby crack or crevice can serve as a daytime refuge for bed bugs. Look for bed bugs under folds in mattresses, along seams and in between bedposts and bed slats. When large numbers of bed bugs are present, they produce a distinctive pungent odor. Numerous dark fecal spots on linen or near cracks are another indication of a bed bug infestation.
Sticky traps placed under the head of the bed often trap bed bugs. Specimens for later identification should be collected into a small leak-proof container of rubbing alcohol and then delivered to a knowledgeable expert for positive identification. If you hire a professional bed bug expert to inspect, they may bring along a bed bug detection dog. If the dog signals that bed bugs are present, then a knowledgeable expert should be able to find live specimens. Be cautious and avoid any treatment until you have positive physical evidence of bed bugs, i.e. bites, blood droplets and preferably live specimens.
Bed bug biology and behavior
After feeding, a female bed bug will lay eggs in their daytime refuge of cracks and crevices. A young bed bug may take several months to mature to an adult and an adult bed bug can live for up to one year. During development, the young bed bug will feed frequently on the blood of humans and they can exist for many months between blood meals. Bed bugs inject saliva into the blood stream of their host to thin the blood and to prevent coagulation. It is this saliva that causes the intense itching and welts. The delay in the onset of itching gives the feeding bed bug time to escape into cracks and crevices. In some cases, the itchy bites can develop into painful welts that last several days. The good news is that this insect is not known to transmit human disease.
Fleas, spiders, mites, ticks, mosquitoes and even lice can also cause itchy bites, and these pests require quite different control methods. This is why specimens should be found prior to treatment.
How to control bed bugs
Place insect sticky monitor traps under the head of the bed before you begin. These traps are useful in measuring the extent of the infestation and the success of any treatment steps.
The first step in a control program is to remove all linen from the bed and if possible, carefully take apart the bed frame. Look for evidence along the seams of the mattress, under any attached labels and between the mattress and the frame. Look inside of frame screw and bolt holes, where slats press against the frame and between the frame and the wall. If bed bugs are found you have several options.
- You can clean and repair the mattress and place it inside of a bed bug proof case.
- An alcohol spray on the mattress will kill bed bugs on contact and then quickly evaporate. Mattresses should NOT be treated with residual insecticides.
- The bed frame may need to be treated with a residual chemical pesticide labeled for bed bug control. Treat all cracks and crevices in the frame and make sure all legs of the bed are treated. A pest control professional with experience has a better probability of treatment success.
The next step is to eliminate the possibility of bed bugs physically climbing over the mattress or bed frame to feed on a sleeping person. Pull the bed away from shelving and the wall and coat the legs of the bed with a band of Vaseline or mineral oil about 2 inches wide. Use all effective means to prevent or exclude bed bugs from the sleeping area. This could include keeping a zone around the bed “bed bug-free” by careful examination and vacuuming. Remember to dispose of the vacuum bag immediately.
Since freezing weather will kill bed bugs, you may be able to place suspect luggage outdoors during the winter for a period of time to eliminate an infestation. Do not bring used furniture into the home unless it can be visually inspected inside and out as bed bug free. It is important not to abandon infested furniture and mattresses without first marking them as infested with bed bugs. Heat treatment of linen using a dryer on high mode is also effective in killing bed bugs.
A successful treatment program is evidenced by a cessation of bites, by no new blood droplets on linen, by an inspection by an expert (with or without a detection dog), and by a lack of specimens on monitor traps. It is useful to understand how bed bugs originally came into your place. If by luggage, make sure the luggage closet is treated and since hard luggage is lined and almost impossible to inspect, you may need to isolate the luggage for some time. If via a used mattress, then a mattress cover is essential. If via adjoining plumbing, electrical or other pathways from adjacent living units, then these pathways must be treated and sealed. You do not need to worry about transporting bed bugs to work unless you sleep in your office since bed bugs typically feed at night.
Developed by Gary D. Alpert Ph.D, retired entomologist, Environmental Health & Safety, Harvard University.
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