Bedbugs are small, wingless insects that feed exclusively on the blood of warm-blooded animals. Humans are the preferred hosts for the two main species.
There are two species of bedbugs that are known to feed on human blood. They are known scientifically as Cimex lectularius and Cimex hemipterus. They have been found in the tombs of ancient Egyptians from 3,500 years ago.
Over millions of years, bedbugs have evolved as nest parasites, inhabiting the nests of birds and the roosts of bats. Some of them have learned to adapt to the human environment.
Newborn bedbugs, called hatchlings or nymphs, are tiny but visible and about the size of a poppy seed. Adults grow to about 0.25 inches long with an oval and flattened shape when they are not feeding. After feeding, they can double in size. Nymphs, eggs, and adults are visible to the naked eye.
They are called bedbugs because of their preferred habitat in human homes: Sofas, bed mattresses, clothing, and other soft furnishings. They also prefer the dark.
Bedbugs are seen as a growing problem within all types of dwellings, including private homes, dormitories, cruise ships, army barracks, and shelters.
When seen close up, their color may range from a white, light tan to a deep brown or burnt orange color. When they have fed, a dark red or black blob may be observed within their body. They seek shelter in dark cracks and crevices when disturbed.
Fast facts on bedbugs
- Bedbugs are small wingless insects that feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals.
- Most bedbugs feed on their hosts while they are asleep.
- The peak time for feeding is between midnight and 5 am.
- Bites can be seen quickly but may take up to 14 days to become visible.
- Bed bugs need to feed regularly to reproduce, lay eggs and survive.
The most obvious sign of bedbugs in the home is that people complain of bites that occurred while they were asleep. If this happens, examine the bedrooms for bedbugs and signs of bedbug activity.
Look carefully in bed linen and the seams and tufts of mattresses and box springs for bugs or eggs. The eggs will look like tiny, pale poppy seeds.
Signs of bedbug activity may occur beneath loose areas of wallpaper near beds, in the corner of desks and dressers, in the laundry, and in drawers.
Keep an eye out for dark brown or rust-colored bedbug droppings that stain material and mattresses. Bedbug excrement is a liquid that looks either light brown or black, and it usually either beads up or is absorbed by the material around it.
A large population of bedbugs may produce a coriander-like odor.
Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and includes:
- topical creams, such as cortisone, to relieve itching
- an oral antibiotic, if infection occurs because of skin irritation around the bite
- corticosteroids, if a person has a severe allergic reaction
- antihistamines, to help relieve allergic reactions
Most bites heal within 1 and 2 weeks of occurrence.
Since bedbugs can hide in a wide range of places in the home, they are not easy to remove. It is advisable to bring in a pest control professional.
Removing excess clutter from the house, giving the bedbugs fewer places to hide, makes inspection and removal less difficult.
Some pest control companies request that furniture is pulled away from walls and mattresses and box springs stood on edge before they enter the home. Other companies prefer everything to be left where it is so that they can perform a check before moving the furniture themselves.
Scientists at Ohio State University have determined that combining the chemical signals of bedbugs with a common insect-control agent can make it an effective treatment for killing the bugs.
Most bedbugs feed on their hosts while they sleep. They draw blood in a painless way.
While feeding, they inject a small amount of saliva into the host's skin. If they feed on one particular person for several weeks, the individual may become more sensitive to their saliva and the chemicals that it contains. The host might eventually develop an allergic response.
Bedbugs, like fleas, tend to bite in rows. There are likely to be two or three bites in each row. This is probably because the bedbug is interrupted while feeding, and then comes back about half an inch further down for its next bite.
Bites can take up to 14 days to become visible but often appear within several days. Bedbug bites are larger than fleabites and do not usually have a red dot at the center. The bites tend to be raised and red.
They can be scattered or occur in clusters of three over the paths of blood vessels, known as the "breakfast, lunch, and dinner sign."
Most people who are bitten show no symptoms at all and often do not know it happened. This makes it more difficult to prevent or identify potential infestations. Some individuals, however, may become ill and nauseous. It is possible to get scars and skin infections from scratching the bites.
Very rarely, people might have an anaphylactic reaction to bedbug bites. It is possible but rare to have an asthmatic reaction to bedbugs.
Bedbugs are adaptable, and there are many ways in which a bedbug infestation can occur.
They may get into a new home as stowaways when luggage, furniture, and bedding is moved in. People should be careful when purchasing second-hand furniture and should never purchase used mattresses. A careful visual inspection should allow a person to detect bedbugs or their droppings.
Even vacant and seemingly clean homes may have bedbugs in them. They can survive for over two months without any food. It is also believed they can move from apartment to apartment through hollows and holes in the walls and the tubes through which wires and pipes run.
Bedbug infestations can be difficult to prevent.
It is possible to encase both the mattress and box spring in a protective cover, as some people do for allergy relief. Some pest control firms sell them, as well as a number of retail outlets. Click here for a range of products that can help to protect a bed against infestation.
Once encased, any bedbug trapped inside and prevented from feeding will eventually die. Some people keep their new beds encased, as it prevents the bugs from getting into the crevices in the mattress and makes it easier to keep the surface clean and bug-free.
When traveling, avoid putting luggage on the bed to reduce the risk of bringing bedbugs home in a suitcase. It is also worth vacuuming any luggage after you return home and making sure you get rid of the contents of the vacuum in a tightly sealed bag. Dispose of this bag in a trashcan outside.
Separate travel clothes from laundry and immediately wash them in hot water.
If you spot bedbugs in the home, call a professional and do not attempt to resolve the infestation. Bedbugs can spread from room to room in clothing, and trying to remove them yourself can often make the matter worse.
Although they are not known to carry diseases, bedbugs can affect an individual's quality of life, causing distress, discomfort, embarrassment, and broken sleep.
Here are the important facts to have in mind when trying to remove or identify a bedbug infestation:
- The peak time for feeding is between midnight and 5 AM. Hungry bedbugs will try to feed at any time, but they do not like sunlight and prefer the dark. One feed will take between 5 and 10 minutes. The bug will then return to its hiding place.
- Bedbugs will feed every 5 to 10 days. They can, however, last for about 70 days without feeding. A well-fed bedbug has a lifespan of several months.
- They find their host by seeking out human body heat and sensing the presence of the carbon dioxide on the breath.
- A bedbug will pierce the skin of its host with its mouth part. It first injects saliva that is a mixture of an anesthetic, so that the host feels nothing, and an anticoagulant so that the blood flows out freely. It then sucks out blood until it is full. The bites are not noticeable until after the skin reaction has occurred. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it can take up to 14 days for bites to appear.
- Bedbugs can only reproduce when they have reached maturity. A female bedbug lays approximately seven eggs in a day and hundreds during her lifetime.
A review of bedbug research conducted in 2016 found that while they are highly resistant to removal methods, bedbugs seem to be more of a nuisance than a serious health problem. Research has failed to show any link between the bedbugs associated with humans and human disease.
The biggest risk for humans comes from secondary bacterial infection. With bedbugs, this would occur as a result of scratching the skin. Scratching, if it breaks the skin, allows normal bacteria from the surface of the skin to penetrate deeper.
The source of any bacterial infection is, therefore, the human host and not the bedbug.