BY THE middle of the 20th century, humans seemed to be winning the war on bedbugs. Some people were familiar with bedbugs only because of an old nursery rhyme that instructed: “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.” In the 1970’s, however, many countries decided to restrict the use of DDT—a primary weapon against bedbugs—because it was toxic and ecologically harmful.
Increasingly, bedbugs became resistant to other chemical treatments. People also began to travel more frequently and unwittingly took bedbugs with them. With what result? “During the past 12 years,” says a 2012 report on bedbug control, “a resurgence of bed bugs has been reported in the U.S., Canada, the Middle East, several European countries, Australia and parts of Africa.”
In Moscow, Russia, complaints about bedbugs grew tenfold in one recent year. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, in Australia, bedbug infestations have increased by some 5,000 percent since 1999!
Some people inadvertently carry bedbugs from stores, theaters, or hotels. “You’re going to get bedbugs,” says one U.S. hotel manager. “Dealing with them is the cost of doing business these days.” Why are bedbugs so difficult to eradicate? How can you protect yourself? If bedbugs do invade your home, what practical steps can you take to eliminate them and prevent them from returning?
Because they are no bigger than an apple seed and have a flat body, bedbugs can hide almost anywhere. They may find a home in your mattress, your furniture, an electrical outlet, or even your telephone. Bedbugs tend to stay within 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 m) of beds and seating areas. Why? To keep close to their food source—you. *
Bedbugs often bite while their victims are asleep. However, most people never feel the bite because the bugs inject an anesthetic that allows them to feed for up to ten minutes without interruption. And although bedbugs may feed every week, they have been known to survive without a meal for many months.
Granted, unlike mosquitoes and some other insects, bedbugs are not known to spread infectious disease. Nevertheless, their bites can become itchy and develop into welts, and many people suffer emotionally. Bedbug victims may endure insomnia, shame, and even “phantom bites” long after the bugs are gone. A report from Sierra Leone calls bedbugs “a source of great irritation and sleepless nights” and warns of “the social stigma attached to bedbugs.”
Keep Bedbugs Out
Bedbugs can afflict anyone. They are easier to manage if you detect them early. So learn to recognize the signs of bedbugs at home and when you travel. Inspect your furniture, baseboards, and luggage for small eggs the size of poppy seeds and for blood stains. Use a flashlight to improve your chances of spotting them.
Give bedbugs fewer places to hide. Seal cracks and crevices in walls and door frames. Although uncleanness does not cause bedbugs, they will be easier to spot and control if you vacuum regularly and reduce clutter. In a hotel room, you may reduce the chance of having bedbugs travel with you if you keep your suitcase off the floor and the bed.
If Bedbugs Invade Your Home
If you find bedbugs in your home or hotel room, you may be anxious and even ashamed. While on vacation, Dave and his wife were bitten by bedbugs. “We were mortified,” says Dave. “What would we tell our friends and family when we got home? Would they think that any itchiness or skin irritation they had was from their visit to our house?” Even though these reactions are normal, do not let embarrassment hold you back from seeking help. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene gives this reassurance: “It is hard, but not impossible to get rid of bed bugs.”
Inspect for bedbugs, and take steps to prevent them from hiding in your home
Do not, however, underestimate the challenge of exterminating bedbugs. If you find bedbugs in your home, a licensed pest controller can likely give you the help you need. Although the chemicals mentioned earlier are no longer used, pest controllers now combine several other effective methods to treat the bugs. Entomologist Dini M. Miller also notes: “Bed bug management requires just as much cooperation from the occupants as from the [building] management and pest control company.” By following the technician’s instructions and taking reasonable precautions, you can do your part and not “let the bedbugs bite”!
^ par. 7 Entomologists report that bedbugs feed on the blood of humans and other mammals, including household pets.