Remember when "sleep tight and don't let the bed bugs bite" was just a cute bedtime expression that didn't mean anything? Well, those days are over. After 6 decades of living largely bed bug-free, the US is facing a national infestation. In fact, the incidence of bed bug infestation has risen 500% in the last few years alone, and they're not just in dirty hotels – they’re at the 5-star ones as well and swarming the public places you visit every day. Bed bugs are shutting down businesses and being found at your local movie theaters and clothing stores as they inch closer and closer to your home.
Outbreaks of these teeny, blood-sucking critters have been reported in every kind of neighborhood in every state across the country, and that means you're at risk right now. Here's what you need to know to truly sleep tight at night – and not fear going out during the day.
Things That Go Bite in the Night
Bed bugs are insects that rely on the blood of humans or animals to survive. As babies, they are tiny as pinheads. A full-grown adult that's been making a nightly meal of you can balloon to the size of Lincoln's head on the penny. These little parasites are nocturnal and hate light, so they wait until the dark to creep out for their meals, which is why it can take so long to discover you've been sharing your home with them.
Making a Meal Out of You
Bed bugs hunt for a bare patch of skin and then hunker down to fill up before dawn. Someone who has a serious infestation could be bitten as many as 500 times per night. More often, you might see several bites clustered in one spot. Doctors call this "breakfast, lunch, and dinner," because the bugs are cramming all their meals into a short span of time.
You will likely call it a very itchy rash, because the saliva of bed bugs causes an allergic reaction in many people. Though some people have no response, others can develop asthma, or in very rare cases, life-threatening anaphylactic shock.
Going on a Bed Bug Hunt Bed bugs hide in dark spots where they're unlikely to be disturbed. When you hunt for them, you may not see live bugs, so keep an eye out for their calling cards: rust-colored spots (blood stains), eggs (pearly white and 1 millimeter long), molted skins and black specks. Here's where to look from them at home - and in "high-risk" public places:
- The boxspring: Lift it up and look underneath and along the seams. In some cases, professionals will slice open the cloth to look inside, because the bugs love the wood frame.
- Nearby furniture: Inspect sofas, the undersides of bureau drawers, behind the headboard, and the backs and undersides of nightstands. Pay special attention to cracks, crevices, and seams.
- On the wall: Peek under picture frames, wall hangings, peeling wallpaper or chipped paint.
- At the movies: The hours you sit in the theater give bed bugs plenty of time to creep into your clothing and bags (don’t put them on the neighboring seat; keep them on the floor). Bring a small flashlight with you and give your seats a thorough inspection. Again, you’ll want to look into the cracks and crevices, where the cloth seating meets the plastic molding, and under the armrests.
- At the mall: Before you pick up a new piece of clothing, remember: you’re not the first person to touch it. Someone may have returned the very shirt you’re about to take home, and there’s a good chance it entered their bedroom. Be extra careful: check under the arms, behind the collar, inside cuffs and at the seams before trying it on or making a purchase.
Stay Calm and Get Help
If you find evidence of bed bugs, call a professional right away. Do not panic and toss your belongings in the street. Moving an infested mattress will just spread the infestation both to other parts of your house and to your neighbors. Bug bombs do not help, and, in some cases, make it much worse, dispersing live bugs to where they cannot be found.
Tossing Out the Welcome Mat
Even if you don't have a rash or find bed bugs after reading this, there are several important steps you can take to make sure you don't become one of the icky statistics.
- Lock 'em out: Buy a mattress encasement designed and tested for bed bugs. There's no way these suckers can get into (or out of) an approved encasement. So, even if bed bugs are introduced to your home, they won't be able to settle in and will be much easier to spot. Wash your linens weekly (in water at least 120 degrees.)
- Trap 'em: Bed bug interceptors are small plastic dishes that go under bed legs. The bugs can climb up them, but then they slide down into them and become trapped and easy to spot.
- Strip search: When you get home from a “high-risk” area like a flea market, movie theater or mall, take off your clothes and throw them into the dryer immediately, on high heat for 30 minutes. Temperatures of 113 degrees or higher will kill eggs and adults. And don’t forget your shoes; toss them in a pillowcase (to protect your clothes) and throw them in the dryer as well.
- Don't invite them home: As tempting as that comfy armchair at the yard sale may be, don't buy it. Used furniture such as beds, sofas, and chairs can harbor hidden bugs and bring them right into your home. Keep clutter around your bed to a minimum and never store anything under the bed.
- Baggage check: When you feel like you've come home from an area where you might have been exposed to bed bugs, dump out your purse (in the foyer or garage). Check the seams and pockets, and treat with an insecticide specifically designed for bags and luggage. Next, vacuum out the interior; remove the vacuum filter, put it in a plastic bag, and dispose of it immediately.
- Don’t pick up hitchhikers: If you’re traveling, inspect your hotel room and keep luggage on racks as far from the bed and sofas as possible. When you get home, wash anything that can be laundered in a hot wash, or dry on high heat. Seal others in plastic bags. Leave the luggage in the garage or foyer. Unzip every compartment, and vacuum it from the inside out, taking extra time in the nooks, and disposing of the vacuum filter immediately. You can also treat your luggage with an insecticide. Other options include portable units that heat your suitcase to destroy bugs and eggs.