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What Causes Bed Bug Infestations, And What Should You Do if You Have Bed Bugs?


Talking about bed bugs is, let’s be honest, a bit of a taboo — and because (almost) nobody would voluntarily share that they are in the process of tackling a bed bug infestation in their home, it is all too easy to form the wrong impression about these frightening pests. Yet, research has shown that most Americans are at least a little scared of bed bugs, and more specifically ending up with a bed bug problem themselves.


Whether you suspect that you could have bed bugs on your property already, or you would simply like to prepare yourself for the possibility of a bed bug infestation, it is always useful to learn more about these bugs. What causes bed bug infestations — and what can you do to prevent them? When you are covered in red marks or you believe you could have bed bugs already, how can you differentiate bed bugs from other pests, and what steps should you take if you are fairly certain that you have bed bugs in your home?


What Are Bed Bugs?


Bed bugs are a family of small, flat, parasitic insects that feed on the blood of humans and animals. The  two types of bed bugs most commonly found in residential homes are Cimex lectularius and Cimex hemipterus, which only feed on warm-blooded animals (including, potentially, your cat or your dog) and prefer humans. These pests can live in any area populated by people; besides North America, they are also found across South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.


To be able to identify bed bugs within your home, a hotel, or on your luggage, it helps to know as much about them as possible. Here is a look at the physical characteristics and life cycle of bed bugs:


  • Bed bugs have flat, oval bodies once they reach their adult form. Like other insects, bed bugs also have two antennae and six legs.
  • The color of bed bugs depends on their age and nutritional status; while the nymphs are almost translucent, adults may have a brown, brown-red, or bright red tint depending on the timing of their last meal.
  • Depending on the life stage they are in, bed bugs may measure between one and seven millimeters in size. That means that although these pests are indeed very small, unlike dust mites, almost anyone with decent vision will be able to spot them — and the exoskeletons they will shed, all over your bedding, when they molt — with the naked eye.
  • Bed bugs go through five distinct stages before reaching adulthood, and need to feed on a host before being able to transform to the next stage after they become nymphs (adolescents). Once they are adults, bed bugs mate on their host. Female bed bugs can lay around five eggs a day, which they do in sheltered locations such as your mattress seams and laundry hampers.
  • Individual bed bugs may live for up to one year. That means that once an infestation is present in a space, the bed bug population will grow quickly and become increasingly hard to eliminate.


The fact that bed bugs are perfectly adapted to thrive in areas where people live makes it tricky to deal with an infestation. These insects are able to squeeze into tight spaces where you cannot get to them, even if you use a bug bomb in a bid to eliminate the infestation. Although they much prefer dark conditions, and almost always feed at night, keeping your lights on as you sleep certainly will not stop bed bugs from venturing out in search of their next meal. Bed bugs more easily mate in humid and warm conditions, but can survive in any temperature range besides prolonged freezing temperatures or high heat above 120 ºF. What’s more, vacating your home for a time will not solve a bed bug infestation you may have, as bed bugs can survive long periods of fasting without any trouble.


How Do Bed Bugs Impact Your Health?


Bed bugs are not, fortunately, known to spread any infectious diseases at present. That does not mean that these much-hated pests do not pose a danger to human health, however — far from it.


Almost everyone who is bitten by a bed bug will develop a localized skin reaction in the form of redness and itching, and multiple bites can cause more severe reactions. These milder reactions can be treated at home by using an antiseptic cream and an antihistamine.


Many people are also allergic to bed bugs, in which case symptoms ranging from hives to breathing difficulties and even (potentially-fatal) anaphylatic shock can follow. Furthermore, bed bug bites can become infected, necessitating medical attention.


The impact a bed bug infestation can have on a person’s mental health should not be underestimated, either. The stigma of such an infestation is joined by fear and disgust as people live with the knowledge that they will serve as a meal for these tiny parasites. Bed bug bites can be itchy and painful, and it is not uncommon to become sleep deprived or develop insomnia when a bed bug infestation is present in the home due to a combination of physical discomfort and mental distress.


Who Is at Risk of Developing a Bed Bug Infestation?


Many people associate bed bugs with poor hygiene and poverty, and may think that they reduce their risk of developing a bed bug infestation through immaculate housekeeping. This is, unfortunately, not true. Bed bugs care neither about your socioeconomic status nor about your level of cleanliness — unlike pests like rodents and cockroaches, they do not feed on your food scraps, but on you.


The scary reality is that almost anyone could find themselves confronting bed bugs within their home. However, some risk factors that make a bed bug infestation more likely include:


  • Living in an urban area increases the statistical likelihood that you will have a bed bug infestation, and cities like Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, and Boston are the bed bug capitals of the United States. It is no surprise that areas with dense populations allow bed bugs to spread from one home to another most easily. Young renters who live in apartment buildings are most at risk of developing bed bug infestations, for the simple reason that once one unit has bed bugs, they will easily spread to others through HVAC systems, pipes, and electric wiring. People who live in rural areas may also, however, develop a bed bug problem depending on their behaviors; essentially, the less contact you have with people and spaces occupied by other people, the lower your risk of a bed bug infestation.
  • Using public transportation poses another risk. As bed bugs remain on the clothes of people who have them in their homes, they can transfer to upholstery in buses, metro cars, or trains, or (less commonly) move from one person to another.
  • Frequently traveling and staying at hotels makes you much more vulnerable to bed bugs. By staying in a hotel infested with bed bugs, you risk bringing this pest home — on your clothes and in your luggage.
  • Purchasing used upholstered furniture (such as couches or chairs) or mattresses can bring bed bugs into your home, too. When you do choose to purchase second-hand furniture or even clothing, it is essential to inspect these items for the presence of bed bugs.
  • Making use of shared laundry facilities such as laundromats is another risk factor, as bed bugs may latch onto your laundry while there.


How Can You Prevent a Bed Bug Infestation In Your Home?


While no preventative action plan will guarantee that you will never have to deal with a bed bug infestation in your home, taking proactive steps can certainly decrease your risk.


The steps you can take within your home focus on reducing the risk that bed bugs will enter, as well as making conditions less hospitable for these pests. You can use mattress covers for all bedding in your home to reduce potential hiding spaces for bed bugs, and remove clutter around your bed. Choose sheets, blankets, and duvet covers with light colors such as white and beige to increase your chance of being able to spot the presence of bed bugs quickly if they have already invaded.


You can choose not to purchase second-hand goods that may harbor bed bugs — including not only more obvious products such as mattresses, couches, and upholstered chairs, but also suitcases, baby strollers, carpets, and even clothes.


If you live in multi-family housing, it is crucial to seal any cracks that connect your home with other units, like around electrical outlets and baseboards, to the best of your ability. Where applicable, discuss your options with your landlord or building management, as they are likely to have a bed bug policy in place already.


Especially cautious people living in areas known to have high bed bug infestation rates should additionally consider routinely inspecting their clothes for bed bugs when they arrive home, and laundering them right away regardless of whether any bugs are spotted.


Should you currently be house hunting, it is also crucial to inspect any new home you are considering moving into for bed bugs before you close the deal — this is one pest you most certainly do not want to inherent from a previous occupant!


While traveling, you can reduce your risk of encountering bed bugs and subsequently inadvertently bringing them home by:


  • Driving your own vehicle rather than using public transportation for your daily commute.
  • Inspecting any hotel room you stay in for bed bugs before staying the night there, and looking for another place to stay if you do see evidence of bed bugs.
  • Covering your backpack, briefcase, or other luggage or bag, with a plastic protector while you are using public transport or spending time in crowded public spaces. Do not set your luggage down on the floor whenever you can avoid it, and consider standing up rather than sitting down on public transportation as well.
  • Checking your luggage or bags for bed bugs when you arrive home, and washing your clothes on hot.


What Are the Signs that You May Have a Bed Bug Problem in Your Home?


By routinely looking for signs of a bed bug infestation, you increase your chances of identifying bed bugs early, before the problem becomes severe — in turn making it easier to eliminate this pest from your home. The red flags that may indicate that you have a bed bug infestation include:


  • Small bites on your body. These may be red and mildly swollen. In people who react more strongly, however, or in those who have sustained multiple bites, more widespread skin rashes may also form.
  • Small stains on your bedding and other indirect evidence of bed bug activity. Red or deep brown stains may result when individual bed bugs are inevitably crushed as you sleep and move. Smaller black stains can be caused by the droppings of bed bugs. Bed bug eggs, exoskeletons shed by bed bugs who have molted, and live bed bugs may all be found around your bed.
  • When you are actively looking for possible signs of a bed bug infestation, pay careful attention to their usual hiding spots — in the seams of your mattress and bedding, behind pillows, in couches, around curtains, in laundry pails, in areas where wallpaper lifts up slightly, behind photographs, or under piles of paper.
  • A foul odor. Bed bugs are known to leave a characteristic musty and sweet smell wherever they are present in large enough numbers.


What Can You Do to Eliminate a Bed Bug Infestation?


Once a bed bug infestation has been confirmed by a professional pest control company, you can begin taking steps to remediate the problem. Many people will want to know if they can eliminate bed bugs on their own, using a Do-it-Yourself approach, instead of hiring professionals. Others will assume that, once they call in a pest management company, they will not need to actively be involved in the process.


The fact is that bed bugs are challenging to get rid of, even with the help of pest management professionals — and the most effective way to eliminate bed bugs is one that makes use of all possible resources. The Environmental Protection Agency calls this integrated pest management, and it requires everyone involved to play their own part.


The most successful bed bug management plan includes multiple steps:


  • Ideally, you would call in a professional pest control company to apply pesticides known to be effective against bed bugs but relatively safe for humans and pets. You will then follow their instructions by vacating your home for as long as needed after the fumigation, and opening all your windows when you return.
  • If you live in multi-family housing, such as an apartment building, this pest control plan should be coordinated with all the other residents and building management. Unless fighting bed bugs is part of a unified effort, these nasty pests may only temporarily be gone, only to find their way back to you from other units over time.
  • Wash all fabrics that can be washed on very high temperatures all at once; you may be surprised to learn that laundering alone does not kill bed bugs, and high heat is required too. Discard clothes and fabrics that cannot be washed at high temperatures, or if small enough, you may freeze them. Temperatures below 0 ºF or -19 ºC will kill bed bugs and their eggs after approximately four days.
  • Furniture that cannot be washed, such as mattresses and couches, may be heated. Temperatures above  120 ºF will likewise kill most bed bugs, after only around 90 minutes. If you are able to heat your entire home to this temperature, that will be of great help.
  • Discarding everything that is not absolutely essential. Bed bugs can hide expertly in a wide variety of places, including old books and children’s toys.
  • Having home repairs carried out. Cracks in the wall, loose caulking, and other small areas all offer a safe haven for bed bugs — and you want to make sure that they have nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide as you prepare for professional fumigation.


How Do You Differentiate Between Bed Bugs and Other Infestations?


Some people — especially those who are terrified of bed bugs — may immediately assume that they have a bed bug infestation when they notice some of the possible signs. Their suspicions may prove to be right when they call a professional pest management company in, but the pest they are dealing with could just as easily prove to be of an entirely different nature. Bed bug infestations lead to some of the same physical symptoms and environmental signs as others, after all.


Some people think that they have bed bugs when they are instead dealing with:


  • Dust mites. These microscopic arachnids are present, in detectable levels, within most American homes. Unlike bed bugs, they do not bite or feed on human blood. They instead rely on some of the components of household dust, including the skin you shed, and they thrive in high-humidity environments. As dust mites release a highly allergenic protein, many people experience respiratory symptoms like sneezing, a runny nose, shortness of breath, and coughing when exposed. Dust mites can also, on the other hand, lead to skin reactions that look similar to bed bug bites.
  • Carpet beetles. These insects, which like bed bugs live on upholstered furniture and other fabrics, are similar in size — the adults range between one and four millimeters. Carpet beetles eat pollen, fabric, and skin cells, and will not bite humans. If you see one, you can tell it apart from a bed bug by looking at its rounded, rather than flat, body shape. Carpet beetles additionally have two clearly visible outer wings.
  • Cockroaches. Immature cockroaches are no bigger than adult bed bugs. The presence of cockroaches often causes respiratory symptoms in people who are allergic, and some people living in homes with cockroach infestations may develop skin rashes that resemble bed bug bites. Unlike bed bugs, cockroaches thrive in moist and humid areas, and can often be seen around kitchens and bathrooms. In some cases, they will, on the other hand, also be spotted in a bedroom.


Mold would be yet another possibility. Not all mold infestations are visible, as mold can accumulate in hidden spaces such as basements, attics, and crawl spaces. Even if you cannot see mold, you will very often be able to smell it — and just like bed bugs, mold produces a musty odor.


A mold infestation can cause a variety of health complications. Typical allergy symptoms, such as sneezing, a runny nose, and itchy, red, and irritated eyes would be the most common. Some people also develop a so-called mold rash when they are exposed to mold spores that have contaminated their air. A mold rash often manifests in the form of small, red, and raised blemishes that may leak fluid from their center. Some people will inevitably suspect a bed bug bite was the cause.


If, instead of bed bugs, you are dealing with another pest, your pest management company will uncover the true culprit and deal with it. Pest control professionals are not trained to look for mold, however — for that, you need a mold inspector. As an independent nationwide mold inspection company, MI&T can definitively rule mold in or out. Our mold inspectors perform an in-depth visual mold inspection that is followed up by taking air samples. After the air samples are lab analyzed, your full mold inspection report informs you what types of mold may be present on your property, and how severe the infestation is. Equipped with this information, you will know what steps should be taken to remediate any mold infestation.


When you know that something in your home is causing uncomfortable symptoms but you are not sure what it could be, isn’t it best to cover all your bases?