Bed bugs are a common problem across the globe. It is not only a problem in hotels and hospitals. Bed bugs can infest home and spread rapidly throughout all bedrooms in the house. An infestation is not just an issue with personal hygiene – bed bugs may infest even the cleanest of homes. A long vacation away from home may not get rid of these parasitic insects. Bed bugs are very resilient and can survive for even months without a blood meal. Fortunately it does not pose any serious medical threat, and can be easily prevented once eradicated from the home.
What are bed bugs?
Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) are tiny wingless insects. It is considered to be parasitic because it is one of many insects that feeds on humans and other mammals. These tiny reddish-brown colored bugs are small, measuring between 1 to 7 millimeters in length. It is visible to the naked eye and should not be confused with ticks, lice or house dust mite (which is not visible to the naked eye). Bed bugs are an entirely different insect, although it may share characteristics with some of these other organisms, like feeding on the blood of humans and preferring to reside in the mattress.
Although bed bugs could be found in almost every part of the world, it was almost entirely eradicated in many developed countries a few decades ago. However, there has been a resurgence in the tiny parasites which is most likely linked to international travel. In fact bed bugs are rapidly becoming a problem in developed nations in North America, Europe and the United Kingdom. Apart from global travel patterns, the other problem is that bed bugs cannot be easily eradicated without professional extermination and have become resistant to common insecticides.
Habitat and Spread
Most people think that bed bugs infest an area due to poor hygiene. It is also often thought that bed bugs only live in a mattress as they cannot travel far beyond their preferred feeding area on their own. It is sometimes believed that bed bugs may stay attached to humans in order to travel from one place to another. All of these statements are incorrect.
Here are some facts about bed bugs:
- A bed bug infestation can occur even in the most well kept of homes. However, it is more common in hotels, hospitals and other facilities that are frequented by visitors who stay for short periods. Bed bugs are often picked up from these locations and brought home in luggage and clothing.
- Bed bugs prefer residing in sleeping areas but not only in the mattress. It can be found hiding within box springs, bed frames, headboards, in furniture seams, near baseboards in carpeted r00ms, under peeling paint and loose wallpaper, and even in electricity outlets and behind light switch plates.
- Bed bugs may feed on humans but do not reside on the human body. It can attach and travel on clothing and luggage but when it is not feeding, these insects prefer to reside in the areas mentioned above like the bed, walls and carpeting.
- Bed bugs may be small and lack wings but can travel quite fast and relatively far on their own. In a single night, a bed bug can cover as much as 100 feet on their own although they prefer living with 8 feet from where humans sleep.
There are different types of bed bugs, some of which have a preference for specific mammals. However, a bed bug that prefers feeding on mammals like birds and bats will readily feed on humans if the natural hosts are not present.
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of bed bug bites are largely the same as that of other blood-feeding insects like ticks and mosquitoes. In fact bed bug bites are often mistaken for other insect bites. Unlike ticks and mosquitoes however, bed bugs do not spread infectious diseases from bacteria, viruses or protozoa in its saliva. The signs and symptoms of bed bug bites include:
- Itching at the site of the bite.
- Red raised spots with a darker red center.
- Spots that appear somewhat in a linear pattern or clusters.
- Bite marks most commonly seen on the face, neck, arms and hands, but bite marks may also be seen elsewhere on the body.
The bed bug injects a natural anesthetic at the site where it feeds. It also has a natural anticoagulant in its saliva which prevents blood from clotting. Some people may therefore never know that they were bitten until a bite mark appears, which can be delayed for as long as 14 days after feeding. Other people may be allergic to the bed bug bite and can have much more severe, and sometimes serious, signs and symptoms. These allergic reactions may also present with:
- Very large bite spots.
- Swelling underneath and around the bite area.
- Pain at the site of the bite.
- Anaphylaxis, which is serious and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction.
It is also important to remember that the effects of bed bug bites may lead to complications and extend beyond the skin. Firstly, repeated scratching can worsen the rash and lead to secondary bacterial infections. These infections may present with significant pain, swelling, redness and oozing discharge (pus). Bed bug bites can also lead to anxiety and insomnia.
Photos of Bed Bug Bites
The following pictures are of bed bug bites on different parts of the body. Some bites may be older than others so the appearance may therefore vary.
Picture of beg bug bite on arm and hand
Picture of bed bug bites on face
Picture of bed bug bites on back
Treatment of Bed Bug Bites
Bed bug bites do not require any specific medical treatment in most cases. The rash resolves on its own in a short period of time. Antiseptic creams and solutions can be applied to a bite in order to reduce the chances of secondary bacterial infections, especially when the reaction is very itchy. However, if it is severe then the following medication may be necessary.
- Hydrocortisone cream, which is a corticosteroid that can reduce inflammation.
- Antihistamine oral medication, which can counteract the allergic reaction and reduce symptoms.
- Antibiotic creams, which destroy bacteria that may have infected the area of the bite.
In the event of an anaphylactic reaction, immediate medical attention is necessary. A person needs to be rushed to the emergency room for prompt attention or death can occur. However, this type of reaction with a bed bug bite is rare.
Eradicating Bed Bugs
In order to get rid of bed bugs, it has to be killed and the necessary measures need to be implemented to prevent a recurrence of the infestation. Usually professional exterminators are necessary for eradicating the bugs.
How to kill bed bugs?
Strong insecticide sprays are used to destroy the bed bugs and a host of other measures are then necessary to prevent recurrence. This includes:
- Washing all clothing in hot water (around 49C/120F) to destroy bugs hiding in the seams.
- Placing clothes and linen in an electric dryer on medium to high heat. Just 20 minutes may be sufficient to destroy bugs and eggs.
- Vacuuming the sleeping area thoroughly, even in between cracks and crevices. This should be done regularly after extermination.
Mattresses, headboards or box springs that are heavily infested may need to be discarded. In these instances, no amount of chemical spraying or other measures can eradicate the bugs.
How to spot bed bugs?
Inspecting the home regularly and calling an exterminator immediately upon spotting the first signs of a bed bug infestation can help to deal with a bed bug problem more effectively. It is important to look out for the following:
- Tiny reddish brown bugs in the seams of mattresses and on bed sheets.
- Molted “shells” or “skin” of the bed bug, which is actually its exoskeleton.
- Rusty-colored feces due to the blood ingested during feeding.
- A sweet musty odor in the room that cannot be explained otherwise.