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Bedbugs Back in U.S. Beds

Pest Firms Report Uptick in Calls for Bedbug Busters

Is That a Bedbug?

Bedbugs are what biologists call true bugs. These wingless insects are obligate parasites. That means they eat blood and nothing else.

For the uninitiated, bedbugs are flat and oval, about 1/4 inch in diameter. They look like a small lentil. The vermin are brownish in color, but take on a rusty mahogany color after a blood meal. Close up -- if you really want to know -- the critter is covered with microscopic hairs that give it a banded appearance when it's engorged with blood. Newly hatched bedbugs are harder to see -- they are light tan and translucent.

Bedbugs don't really bite. They suck. They're equipped with a long, sharp, thin, hollow bayonet used to pierce the skin. Saliva injected during feeding contains an anticoagulant that keeps the blood from clotting. It may also contain a mild anesthetic.

Most people don't feel the animal feeding. The first sign that you've been a bedbug's breakfast is an itchy red dot with a lighter red ring around it. There's often one or more straight lines of these wheals, marking where your body met the bed. Usually, more than one bug is to blame.

A common myth is that bedbugs are invisible. They're not -- but they only come out at night. During the day they hide in bedding; in creases in the mattress, box springs, and bed frame; behind pictures on the wall or in tears in the wallpaper; behind baseboards; and just about anyplace nearby. How far they get depends on how soon you discover them.

The earliest sign of bedbugs -- other than wheals on your body -- is tiny dots of blood on the sheets. That's because wounds from bedbug bites bleed a little. And bedbug poop is a liquid; it appears as darker dots on the sheets. If you've got lots of bedbugs -- and the little suckers are prolific breeders -- your bed will have the distinctive sickly-sweet, soda-pop-syrup smell that the bugs give off.

Speaking of breeding, a single female bedbug lays 10 to 50 eggs every three to 15 days. The sticky eggs are laid near the bugs' hiding places. If they feed regularly, bedbug nymphs become adults in two to six weeks.

Bedbugs and Disease

There's one good thing about bedbugs. No, really. It's this: They don't seem to transmit disease. Here's Ben Beard, PhD, chief of the bacterial zoonoses branch of the CDC's division vector borne diseases in Ft. Collins, Colo.

"There's no medical reason to worry about a bedbug bite, unless you are unusually allergic to them," Beard tells WebMD. "They have never been considered important in disease transmission -- or never incriminated. Some researchers have found that bedbugs can carry hepatitis B virus, but I'd say it isn't of any public health importance."

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