What Causes Bed Bugs?

No one wants to discover bed bugs in their home. Bed bugs are blood-eating creatures that hide in tiny crevices like your mattress, headboard, and even behind light switch covers. They emerge at night and leave you with itchy bites. While they aren't known to spread any diseases, bed bug infestations are notoriously hard to get rid of.

What causes bed bugs? Bed bug infestations aren't caused by filth or bad habits. These tiny insects can't fly and typically spread on luggage and clothing. Bed bugs may have been introduced into your home after a stay in a hotel, dorm, or apartment building.

If you spot evidence of bed bugs in your home, or you simply want to avoid a dreaded infestation, here's what you should know about how they get in your home and how to get rid of bed bugs.

The History of Bed Bugs

Bed bugs have always been a problem that humans have endured but it wasn't until the late 1930s that there was an effective solution to them. The use of a pesticide called DDT virtually wiped out bed bugs in the United States and Europe. By the 1990s, bed bugs were but a distant memory but this changed. The many ill effects of DDT were uncovered and its use was banned. In 2000, a strain of pesticide-resistant bed bugs began to appear. After being nearly eradicated, bed bugs suddenly became an epidemic around the world.

Bed Bug up close
Image credit: jareynolds, Deposit Photos

The rise of international travel, an expanding world economy, and pesticide-resistant strains of the insect has made bed bugs a common problem not only in hotels but also in apartment buildings and homes. Bed bugs have reached epidemic proportions in many U.S. cities like Columbus, New York, and Los Angeles.

How Do You Get Bed Bugs?

Bed bugs don't care if your home is messy or clean. They just want a good hiding spot and a food source: you. You are most likely to be exposed to bed bugs in areas with a high turnover of people who spend the night, including hotels, hostels, apartment buildings, hospitals, laundromats, and nursing homes. Still, bed bugs can infest almost any area like an office building, gym, or store.

If you spend time in an area with bed bugs, they can hitch a ride home with you by hiding in your gym bag, purse, luggage, or items you keep near a sleeping area. You can even accidentally bring home bed bugs by buying secondhand furniture. Apartment and condo buildings are at the greatest risk of large-scale bed bug problems. Studies have shown that bed bugs can spread to units adjacent to, above, or below the home with the original infestation. They may walk right out the front door of one apartment and into the next, move through cracks in walls, and infest common areas.

Tips on How to Prevent Bed Bugs

A bed bug infestation is hard to treat but much easier to prevent. When you travel, you can take preventative measures to prevent unwanted hitchhikers in your luggage. Use these tips to avoid bed bugs when you travel or bring home secondhand items:

  • Don't put luggage near the bed. When you check into a hotel or rented apartment or home, keep your luggage as far away from the bedroom as possible. Luggage is best stored in the bathroom or kitchen. According to one study of bed bug service calls to hotels, bed bugs were found near just five key areas near the bed in 75% of cases.
  • Inspect the bed when you arrive. As soon as you arrive in a new place, inspect the bed. Pull back the sheets to examine the mattress and box spring. You may see living or dead bugs which are about the size of an apple seed or black smears that can look like a stain from a permanent marker.
  • Check your luggage when you pack and unpack. You should look for the same signs as you did on the bed.
  • Wash your clothes when you get home. As soon as you return home, isolate your luggage and wash your clothes. Make sure clothes are dried in the dryer for at least 20 minutes to kill the bed bugs at all life cycles. Heat is the most effective way to kill bed bugs.
  • Look for signs of bed bugs before bringing secondhand furniture or mattresses home.
  • Invest in a mattress cover. A bed bug cover is made from a waterproof material that bed bugs can't bite through to hide in your mattress. These barriers are an effective way to prevent bug bugs from burrowing into your mattress and box spring.
  • Vacuum regularly. The invention of the vacuum cleaner significantly reduced bed bug infestations around the world. Vacuum your upholstered furniture, floors, and rugs often. You should also vacuum under the bed and around the bed frame and bed legs. Used vacuum bags should be stored in a sealed plastic bag outside.
  • If you live in a multi-family building, take extra steps to protect yourself. Install a door sweep at the bottom of the door leading to a common hallway. Seal cracks around light sockets and baseboards to discourage bed bugs from moving through voids in the walls. Don't place your bed directly against the wall. Use ClimbUp interceptors on your bed legs to trap bed bugs that try to get into your bed.

    Bed with soft pillows at home
    Image credit: NewAfrica, Deposit Photos

Solutions to Treat a Bed Bug Problem

If you suspect a bed bug infestation, you'll need to take action right away to stop the problem before it gets worse. An adult female bed bug lays one to seven eggs per day and up to several hundred per year. Eggs are laid just after a blood-feeding. Because mating can be difficult and dangerous for females, they often mate and then attempt to travel far from their original location – such as hitching a ride home with you. Within six months, a single pregnant female can cause an infestation of more than 5,000 bugs.

There are several steps you can take to get rid of bed bugs in your home. Start by washing all bedding, clothing, and even curtains in very hot water and drying on the hottest setting. Even shoes and stuffed animals that can't be washed should be run through the dryer.

Treat your mattress by scrubbing the seams and vacuuming then encase the mattress in a bed bug-tested encasement bag to prevent bed bugs from entering or getting away. The cover should remain on the mattress for at least a year.

Get rid of clutter in your bedroom and take care to avoid spreading the infestation to other rooms. As you remove items for cleaning, make sure they are kept isolated. As you wash your belongings, bring them back into the living area in a new laundry bag that isn't potentially contaminated.

Related reading: Bed Bug Sprays

Finally, you will need to inspect and clean even the tiniest crack and crevice. Take off light switch covers, look around baseboards, and investigate every interior and exterior surface of your furniture. If you don't feel you can tackle the problem on your own, you may need professional help. A bed bug exterminator can use specialized treatments like heat treatment, which heats the interior of your home to more than 113 degrees Fahrenheit to kill bed bugs.

Related Questions

Can Bed Bugs Spread Disease?

Bed bugs can definitely be gross and annoying. They bite at night and their presence can cause loss of sleep and itching. The good news is bed bugs have never been found to spread disease to humans. Unlike fleas and ticks, bed bugs don't spread Lyme disease. They can harbor dozens of pathogens but they can't transmit them back to humans. There is some new evidence that the feces of bed bugs may spread Chagas disease, however.

Where Do Bed Bugs Hide During the Day?

Bed bugs excel at hiding. In your home, they will hide behind baseboards, inside crevices and cracks, and in folded areas or seams in your box spring and mattress. They can even hide in upholstered furniture, nightstand drawers, under lamps, and behind light switch covers.

bed bug bites

How Do You Know if Bites Are From Bed Bugs?

Bed bug bites can resemble mosquito or flea bites because they are very itchy and red. There are some ways to identify bed bug bites, though. A bed bug bite will look like a red, raised welt that itches or burns. Bed bugs tend to leave multiple bites at once in a straight line, not a cluster. These bites are usually on areas exposed while sleeping such as the hands, legs, face, and arms. Still, some people have no reaction at all to bed bug bites.

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