Bedbugs Back in U.S. Beds

Pest Firms Report Uptick in Calls for Bedbug Busters

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 3, 2003 -- More and more Americans don't sleep tight. Not when the bedbugs bite.

Once known only from our mothers' bedtime rhymes, blood-sucking bedbugs are making a comeback.

It's happening all across the country, says Cindy Mannes, director of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association. Every year since 1999, U.S. pest-control firms have been getting more and more bedbug calls.

"Five years ago, pest control companies got one or two bedbug calls a year. Now they get that many every week," Mannes says. "It's in every state except for eight we haven't heard from yet. They truly are coming back. The problem is going to grow. We are predicting a steady increase."

Pest-control firm Orkin Inc. predicts up to a 30% increase in bedbug infestations over the next five years. Calls to Orkin this year are up 500% over just two years ago.

Why Now?

Exterminators -- who now prefer to be called pest-control professionals or PCPs -- have a theory. They say the uptick in the little bloodsuckers is a side effect from modern pest-control methods.

Time was, exterminators -- excuse me, PCPs -- sprayed bug killer all over the place. If you had bugs when they came, you had nothing but dead bugs when they left. Concerns over exposure to that much poison led to modern techniques. Now PCPs use insect-specific traps and baits. If they're after cockroaches, that's all they'll kill. This gave bedbugs an unintended reprieve.

And of course the enormous increase in international travel means that bedbugs in one place quickly travel to another. They're great at hiding in your suitcase.

"My husband goes to China all the time," Mannes says. "The last time, I told him to leave his suitcases in the garage and vacuum them before bringing them in the house."

Bedbugs in the Best Places

Not in my house, you're saying. But don't be so sure, says entomologist Frank Meek, BCE, national pest control manager for Atlanta-based Orkin Inc.

"At first it was just in hotels -- not just low-end places but just as often in high-end hotels," Meek tells WebMD. "Now we are seeing bedbugs in homes, in school dorms, in condominiums, and apartments. They're getting on aircraft, both overseas and domestic runs. We've also had reports from cruise ships."

We think of bedbugs as confined to fleabag flophouses. But that's only because poor sanitation fails to get rid of the pests -- not because it attracts them in the first place.

"The bedbug does not live off of trash or organic debris," Meek says. "Its sole food source is blood. It is not attracted by filth or odors of filth such as the housefly or some cockroaches. The level of cleaning doesn't make it more attractive to them or help them reproduce."

In other words, you can find bedbugs in the best of places. And its tendency to hide in suitcases makes it a world-class hitchhiker. International travelers report bedbug bites from the best hotels in the world.

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."

One of those researchers is Ann Silverman, MD, director of gastroenterology and hepatitis research at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., and assistant professor at Wayne State University.

Silverman somehow talked hepatitis B patients into allowing her to let bedbugs feed on their arms. The bugs became full of live hepatitis B virus. When bugs were liquefied and injected into woodchucks, the animals became infected.

"The question is, 'Can bedbugs transmit hepatitis B by feeding on one person infected with the virus and giving it to the next person?' At this point we just don't know," Silverman tells WebMD. "But people shouldn't get alarmed."

Even so, Silverman admits, while doing the research she had nightmares that her hepatitis-fed bedbugs got loose.

Similar tests showed that hepatitis C -- a totally different virus -- can't survive in bedbugs.

Bedbugs Begone

If you've got bedbugs, get rid of them. Now.

"From a public health and hygiene point of view, we shouldn't tolerate bedbugs," the CDC's Beard says. Bedbug infestations are not healthy at all."

Who you gonna call? Bedbug busters, say the professionals.

"This isn't something homeowners can do themselves," Mannes says. "They hide so well. Even with professionals it often takes two or three calls. You have to keep checking that they're really gone. You want to be sure. They can be under the carpet, the baseboards, in picture frames, electrical outlets. They can live for a year -- and multiply -- without a blood meal."

Mannes and Meek say that pest control companies can rid beds of bugs without having to use pesticide. But every crack and crevice of the rest of the room likely will need to be treated.

"Bedbugs can be very difficult insects to control," Meek says. "If you suspect a problem, don't put it off. Call a pro. And call right away, because that minimizes the discomfort and time it takes to properly treat your home."

To prevent getting bedbugs in the first place, Mannes offers a few tips to travelers:

  • At the hotel, pull the bed covers down at night. If you see something moving, or if you see spots on the sheets, move to another room.
  • Vacuum your suitcases before bringing them into the house. "That seems like overkill, but we do recommend it," Mannes says.
  • Don't relax your vigilance even if you're paying a lot for your hotel. "Many of our calls come from very nice hotels in places like Las Vegas, Orlando, and New York City -- tourist locations with lots of transient folks," Mannes says.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Cindy Mannes, director of public affairs, National Pest Management Association, Dunn Loring, Va. Frank Meek, BCE, national pest control manager, Orkin Inc., Atlanta. Ben Beard, PhD, chief, Bacterial Zoonoses Branch, Division of Vector Borne Diseases, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ft. Collins, Colo. Ann Silverman, MD, director, gastroenterology and hepatitis research, William Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, Mich.; assistant professor, Wayne State University, Detroit.
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