July 29, 2010 -- The bedbugs are biting, and not just in New York City.
The largest-ever survey on bedbug infestations suggests that the creepy, blood-sucking creatures are being found and fought all over the United States -- in single-family homes, apartment buildings and condos, hotels and motels, retail establishments, and even schools and churches.
The survey, sponsored by the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), found that bedbug-related calls to exterminators have risen by 81% over the last decade and by 57% over the last five years.
Bedbug Concerns Increasing
Questionnaires were sent to nearly 6,000 pest control businesses across the country between January and April of this year. Just over 500 responded.
According to the results:
- 95% of the responding companies reported treating bedbug infestations during the previous year. Infestations occurred in all regions of the U.S.
- 20% of companies reported treating for bedbug infestations more than 100 times during this time period -- up from 6% just two years prior.
- Nearly 90% said they had treated infestations in houses, apartments, or condos, while 67% had treated for bedbugs in hotels or motels, 17% in office buildings, 12% in hospitals, and 10% in primary/secondary schools.
And survey respondents from all over the country overwhelmingly reported the belief that bedbug infestations were increasing in their region.
“A few years ago, many of our members were getting just a few bedbug-related calls a year or none at all, but that has changed” NPMA spokeswoman Missy Henriksen tells WebMD. “This study confirms the reach of these bugs is certainly broadening.”
New York Mayor Wants ‘Bedbug Czar’
But the extent to which public awareness and concern has contributed to what NPMA calls a "global pandemic" is not entirely clear.
In New York City, for example, hundreds of bedbug-related stories have appeared in the media over the past few years.
A panel appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently reported a 63% increase in residential bedbug complaints in 2008, following a 35% increase in 2007.
This and several high-profile infestations this month at upscale New York department stores reportedly prompted Bloomberg to call for a city "bedbug czar" this week.
Bedbug expert Louis Sorkin, who is an entomologist with the American Museum of National History in New York, says the media attention probably has played some part in the bed bug rise.
“People are certainly more aware and they are more worried,” he says. “In this environment, it may be that people think they have bedbugs when they really have some other bug.”
Bedbug Populations Rising
But Sorkin says that bedbug infestations are clearly on the rise, in part because the bugs have developed a resistance to many commonly used chemical pesticides and, in part, because people are traveling more.
Bedbugs are hitchhikers that can hide in clothing and suitcases. The species that is most often associated with infestations prefers to feed on human blood, but will also feed on house pets and mice.
The bugs are difficult to eradicate because they can live for up to a year without feeding, Sorkin says. And even when they do start biting, some people don’t notice because they are not allergic.
People who are allergic may experience redness and itching at the site of the bite. But bedbugs are not known to transmit disease the way ticks, mosquitoes, and other insect parasites do.
Best Defense: Know the Enemy
Sorkin says people don’t really know what to look for to reduce their chances of bringing home bedbugs when they travel because there hasn’t been a lot of public education.
When a bedbug has fed, it is about a quarter-inch long, reddish brown, and round like a tick. But young bedbugs and hungry ones are much harder to spot because they are much smaller and flat and can be white or straw colored, he says.
He recommends checking bedding and mattresses in hotel rooms before unpacking, and looking not just for the bugs but also for evidence of their existence in the form of tiny brown or red specks on sheets.
He even recommends looking behind headboards and picture frames and inspecting upholstered furniture.
Henriksen recommends dry cleaning or washing all clothing in hot water upon arriving home after traveling, even clothes that haven’t been worn. And suitcases should be inspected thoroughly and vacuumed with a hose attachment if evidence of infestation is seen.