Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite! Back »

Written collaboratively by Patrick Wagner, Adam Varenhorst, Amanda Bachmann, and Philip Rozeboom.

When it comes to household pests, there is one insect that can make almost anyone cringe: bed bugs. These tiny vampire-like critters are pests of humans and can become a huge problem when they infest homes. It is important to remember that bed bugs do not vector any diseases to humans. However, the level of irritation associated with bed bug bites varies from person to person. Some people experience redness and swelling around the bite while others may not exhibit any symptoms at all.

There are a number of insects and other arthropods that are commonly misidentified as bed bugs, including carpet beetles, ground beetles, and ticks. It is important to always properly identify a pest, so that the appropriate treatment can be used. In some cases, people are hesitant to confirm a bed bug case or reach out for help because they are ashamed of the problem. It’s important to remember that bed bugs can infest anyone’s home and can be picked up just about anywhere.

Profile

Bed bugs are small, flat, bronze-colored bugs that feed on blood (Figure 1). They are attracted to people because they require human blood for nutrition. Keep in mind that it is impossible to diagnose a bed bug infestation from a bite or skin lesion. Seek medical attention if you have skin irritation that requires treatment.

Bed bugs in various life stages on the side of a nickel.
Figure 1. Bed bug adults and nymphs. Courtesy: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org

Bed bugs get their name because they tend to gather in hidden places where people spend an extended period of time (i.e., beds). They have three main life stages which are the egg, nymph, and adult. Bed bugs typically grow to about the size of an apple seed and all life stages are visible with the naked eye. However, magnification is useful for observing the eggs (which are cloudy white) and first instar nymphs (which are almost clear until they feed for the first time).

Management

The first step in bed bug management is preventing them from entering your home in the first place. Infestations in single family homes start when bed bugs hitchhike on items and are brought into the home by accident. Bed bug populations in multi-unit housing structures have an additional level of complexity, as bed bugs can travel between neighboring units.

Traveling and staying at a place that has bed bugs can lead to the bugs hiding out in your clothes or luggage and coming home with you. Therefore, it is a good idea to take extra precautions while on the road by checking for bed bugs on the mattress, bedframe, and other furniture before spending the night somewhere (Figure 2). Avoid putting your clothing in dresser drawers and give your luggage a once over with an extra sticky lint roller when you return home. Immediately wash and dry all of the clothes you took with you on high heat, even if you didn’t wear them. Alternatively, clothes and luggage can be placed in a freezer for a few days to kill any potential hitchhiking bed bugs.

Bed bugs grouped together where the fabric and wood join on a box spring.
Figure 2. Bed bugs grouped together where the fabric and wood join on a box spring. Courtesy: Gary Alpert, Harvard University, Bugwood.org

Many times, people will dispose of furniture because of a bed bug infestation. This is not recommended because it can potentially spread the bed bugs and it won’t get rid of the problem. Furniture can be treated, mattresses can be encased, and you do not need to incur the additional cost of replacing those items. Bed bugs can hide in many other areas of the home including between walls, behind baseboards, pictures, or other hanging decorations.

If bed bugs are confirmed in a dwelling, swift management action is necessary to prevent them from becoming widespread. No single method of management is successful on its own, so it is important to implement a strategy that uses several different control methods. First, carefully inspect your home and confirm the identity of any suspected bed bugs. Make sure to clean your house by reducing clutter, eliminating hiding spots, and physically removing any bed bugs with a vacuum. You may then choose to hire a professional pest control company to come in and apply a treatment (i.e., insecticides or heat/cold treatments). Interceptor traps can be used under the feet of beds and sofas to monitor bed bug activity and determine whether or not additional treatments are necessary. As mentioned previously, barriers like plastic encasements can be used on mattresses and other furniture to help deter any possible re-infestation.

If you have questions or concerns regarding bed bugs, please contact your nearest SDSU Extension entomologist for more information.

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