They can crawl in through the window during the middle of the night. They can soundlessly creep into bedrooms without giving any indication of their presence. They’ll follow their victims home from work, school, and even vacation. They can hide in the most inconspicuous of places, just waiting to attack. These intruders are not rapists or serial killers; they are bedbugs. Though they’re significantly smaller in size, they can prove to be a huge pest to their victims. The resurgence of bedbugs into mainstream society has continuously grabbed at news headlines in recent years and shows few signs of slowing down.
“Goodnight, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite,” was a phrase coined after WWII, when the bedbug epidemic in the United States originally began. The critters were nearly eradicated with the use of DDT, but the pesticide became ineffective even before its ban in 1972. However, bedbugs continued to be a concern in other countries, and half a century later, that nighttime cautionary tale has come back to bite society where it really hurts. The CDC claims the recent increase in international travel has greatly contributed to the bedbug epidemic that has seized the US in the 21st century. The pests became so troublesome that in 2010, the first-ever North American Bedbug Summit was hosted in Chicago to create awareness on how to combat bedbugs.
Bedbugs are small, round, flat critters that are light to dark brown in color, but they turn red as they feed on human and animal blood. They typically wait about a week in between meals, but they can last as long as a year without food. Because they are nocturnal, bedbugs tend to bite people during the night. They tend to hide near humans and animals, in mattresses, luggage, clothing, even behind picture frames and headboards. Typically, most people aren’t aware they have been bitten until bite marks appear on their skin. Luckily, bedbugs don’t transmit disease, but the pests are hard to get rid of being that their flat bodies allow them to hide almost anywhere without detection.
Bedbug infestations have several implications in society, impacting the economy and general health of the population both physically and psychologically. Being that the insects can inbreed, small populations of bedbugs can multiply quickly, making them a nightmare to get rid of. Their tendency to hide in luggage and clothing allows them to hitch a ride with their victims to their next residence, thus allowing for a smooth transition from home to home. But the presence of bedbugs is just the beginning; their bites can cause adverse health reactions. A statement by Terminix, the leading pest control service in the US, claims, “Recent evidence suggests that severe bedbug infestations may be associated with anemia and that bedbug bites can result in secondary infections due to excessive scratching. Infestations can cause emotional stress and irritability.” According to an article from The Baltimore Sun, a boy who left a bite untreated developed an acute infection in his leg. A woman who had battled the bugs in her home was forced to seek therapy to deal with the implications of having them invade her life. A 2012 Canadian study published in the British Medical Journal Open concluded that bedbugs can cause anxiety, insomnia, and even depression. These medical concerns, coupled with the cost of extermination, create a costly problem for those who find they have been infested with bedbugs.
Infestations rear their heads in a number of ways. People typically notice multiple bite marks from bedbugs, but they can take some time (up to 14 days) to appear on the skin. They appear as itchy red marks on the skin, akin to a mosquito bite. But by then, the bedbugs would have had enough time to breed and create a growing population. Bedbugs shed their skin, so their remains left behind are a definite indicator that a bedbug has visited. Since they feed on blood, blood spots are often left on sheets, yet another sign of the creepy crawlers. Live bugs hide in nooks and crannies, such as seams of mattresses and clothing or behind pictures, furniture, or headboards, so checking there is a must for someone who believes they have bedbugs. There are also companies that use dogs to sniff out bedbugs, including First Response Bedbug Dogs, a member of the National Pest Management Association.
The best ways to prevent an infestation is to consciously and continuously be on the lookout for bedbugs. Because hotels have constant turnover, bedbugs tend to travel with people and stick around for the next visitor. Therefore, it’s important to always check beds, closets, and even dresser drawers for bedbugs. Hanging clothing will create more of a hassle for bedbugs, so it’s smarter to stow clothes in a closet or leave them in a suitcase perched on a luggage rack for the duration of a trip. Upon the return home, all clothing and luggage should be thoroughly inspected for any indication of bedbugs. Luggage should be vacuumed and clothes should be washed in hot water to kill any bugs that might have been missed.
The treatments for bedbugs have gone through much iteration over the years. DDT was used for years, but the pests are great at developing resistance to pesticides. Malathion, pyrethroids, and diazinon were all once remedies recommended for bedbug removal, but either stopped being effective or posed serious health threats in household use. The chemical propoxur was effective in wiping out populations, but in 2007 the EPA asked for safety data that the manufacturer didn’t have yet and the pesticide was yanked from the shelves. Unfortunately, safety data that meets regulations would require millions of dollars and years to develop, and many companies are unwilling to shell out that amount of time and money. Infestations are best left to professionals such as Terminix, which has begun using a RapidFreeze technology using carbon dioxide to kill bedbugs on contact.
Though experts can’t identify one single cause for the reappearance of bedbugs in the 21st century, one thing is certain: if the pesky pests are suspected in a home, office, or hotel, they must be dealt with immediately. Delaying the inevitable treatments only increases the risk of the population increasing quickly. It is best to remember the signs of bedbug presence and have an action plan in place in case they do attack.