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The essential guide to bed bugs

Bed bugs: two words that can create psychological havoc with most people. Although bed bugs were nearly wiped out in the developed world by the 1950’s, these tiny parasitic insects have made a tremendous comeback in recent years.

Bed bugs are insects in the family Cimicidae. The most common species of bed bug is cimex lectularius. They feed entirely on the blood of vertebrates, however, they have a preference for human blood. Bed bugs are sneaky, hiding in places where they can have rapid access to a blood meal and with as little disturbance as possible. Once they have fed, bed bugs will quickly abandon their host and hide.

Potential hiding spots include beds, sofas, chairs and near any other location where humans are sedentary for extended periods of time. You should learn how to find bed bugs in your home or how to check for them in a hotel room

Bed bugs are found almost everywhere humans inhabit, and according to the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky, almost 100% of pest management professionals have treated for bed bugs in the past year. Bed bugs are regularly found in places such as single family homes, condos, apartments, hotels and motels. Additionally, there are increasing incidents of bed bugs infesting places such as retail stores, movie theaters, public transportation and restaurants. In fact, bed bug pest control services are one of the most requested services Ehrlich offers and the demand seems to be growing.

People who have been bitten by bed bugs often suffer more psychological harm than physical harm. The thought of being fed upon as you sleep is extremely disturbing to most people. Bed bugs do not transmit disease to humans, and skin reactions to bed bug bites will vary, but most reactions are similar to those of mosquito bites.

We have created “The Essential Guide to Bed Bugs” to try and answer all of your questions about bed bugs. This resource will also provide guidance when you have an infestation. You can also find our frequently asked bed bugs questions page for more information. Click below to see the answers.

Basic bed bug questions

  • What are bed bugs?

    The common bed bugs, Cimex lectularius, are blood-feeding insects in the family Cimicidae. They are temporary ectoparasites, meaning they exist on the outside of their hosts to feed, and spend their time between blood-meals hiding in nearby cracks and crevices. They have piercing-sucking mouthparts for feeding purposes, and both males and females of all life-stages feed exclusively on blood. Their preferred host is humans, though they will feed on other vertebrates.

  • What color are bed bugs?

    Their color will vary, depending on their stage of life and also when they last fed. Early stage bed bug nymphs are translucent to straw-colored, but will have a crimson-colored center if they have recently fed. As bed bugs get older, they darken, and adult bed bugs appear as a mahogany brown color, or a darker red if they are digesting a blood-meal.

  • Are there other insects that look like bed bugs?

    A trained specialist can tell whether you have bed bugs or something else, but the average person may not know. There are some insects and close relatives that can resemble bed bugs. Including:

    • Ground beetles
    • Carpet beetles
    • Ticks
    • Bat bugs – they look almost identical and can even fool a Technician. An examination with a microscope is required to accurately determine the difference between bed bugs and bat bugs. Bat bugs develop in colonies of bats, and oftentimes, unbeknownst to them, homeowners may have a colony of bats residing somewhere in the structure. Bat bugs may enter into living spaces in search of a host, and are commonly found wandering in attics or upstairs hallways. While they can bite humans, bat bugs cannot sustain and reproduce in the absence of bats.

  • How big are bed bugs?

    Bed bug adults are about the size of an apple seed, measuring around 5mm long. Younger life stages are much smaller. Bed bug eggs are 1mm in length, which is about half the size of a grain of rice. Newly hatched nymphs are about the size of a pin head—looking much like a tiny “moving freckle”. As nymphs molt and grow larger, they become easier to see.

  • Where do bed bugs live?

    Bed bugs are found anywhere that humans are motionless for an extended period of time. The most common of these places is of course, the bed, which is where bed bugs get their name. Bed bugs prefer to be as close to their human food source as possible, and are frequently found on or in close proximity to the following places:

    • Beds – including box springs, mattresses, headboards, mattress covers
    • Couches – including cushions and pillows
    • Reclining chairs
    • Any other areas where people are sedentary for long periods of time.

    As infestations grow larger, bed bugs tend to spread out within a room, and can end up in unusual places such as behind baseboards on curtains, along ceilings, in electrical outlets and behind pictures.

  • Where do bed bugs come from?

    Bed bugs have been around for thousands of years. Many experts believe that bed bugs have evolved from bat bugs, hypothesizing that bed bugs switched from feeding on the blood of bats and birds to feeding on humans, when cave dwellers first began taking up residence in the same caves as the bats.

    Bed bugs are notorious hitchhikers and can crawl into your luggage, or other belongings, and catch a ride to your residence. They can also lay eggs on your belongings and return to their hiding spot, leaving behind a future generation that will emerge at a new location. You can pick the resilient little creatures up from any infested area or from visits by friends and family carrying belongings that have also been to areas with an infestation.

    Housing that is multi-family, such as apartment buildings and condominiums have led to the expansion of some bed bug populations. In these types of housing, bed bugs can crawl out of one residence, down a hallway, and into another residence. They can also travel within the walls.

  • How long do bed bugs live?

    Bed bugs live an average of about 10 months. They can also survive for weeks to several months without feeding, depending on their life-stage and surrounding environmental conditions.

  • Where do you find bed bugs?

    Bed bugs can be found anywhere that humans inhabit from houses, to places of business to public transportation. Some examples include hotel rooms, hospital rooms, apartments, single-family homes, condominiums, retirement homes, movie theaters, office buildings, and cruise ships, to name a few. They are found throughout the world, in both developed and undeveloped countries. Bed bugs must live close to their human hosts and are therefore found in man-made structures and never free-living in the wild.

  • What attracts bed bugs?

    Bed bugs are most attracted to humans compared to all other potential vertebrate hosts. Bed bugs use multiple cues in order to detect humans, including:

    • Body heat
    • Carbon dioxide
    • Human odors

  • How do you detect bed bugs?

    There are several ways to detect bed bugs , but for the average person, bed bugs can be very difficult to find.

    • Bites – not a good indicator for bed bugs because not everyone reacts the same way to a bed bug bite. Some people will not experience any type of reaction, while others will develop itchy red welts. Additionally, it is nearly impossible to distinguish a bed bug bite from the bite of other insects, such as mosquitoes. Even a medical doctor may not be able to say for certain who the biting culprit is.
    • Fecal spotting – black staining that is digested blood appears as small dots of black on mattresses, box springs and bedding that looks like someone held a fine point sharpie to the fabric. On harder surfaces, bed bug droppings dry and bead up more. Fecal spots are usually found in areas where bed bugs like to hide, along the seams or under the tags of mattresses and box springs
    • Live bugs – they hide in areas such as the seams or tags of mattresses and box springs, screw holes on the headboard joints, along bed frames and in any other nearby crack or crevice that may provide a hiding place. These areas can also include the nightstand or behind a picture hanging over a bed.
    • Cast skins- since bed bugs molt before each life stage, you will often find their cast skins in areas where an infestation is present. Cast skins are tan to brown in color, and look like small insect “shells.”

    Pest management Technicians are trained to look for signs of bed bugs and will detect them by performing a thorough inspection with a bright flashlight. Another way to detect an infestation is by using specially trained bed bug dogs. These dogs are trained to detect the scent of live bed bugs and their eggs, even at low levels.

    A more recent development used by pest management professionals to detect bed bugs are active bed bug monitors. A chemical base attractant is placed in a specially designed device which will lure and trap these pests.

  • What do bed bugs do?

    Bed bugs feed exclusively on the blood of vertebrates with humans their preferred host. A blood-meal is required for bed bugs to reach each life stage and to reproduce. When hosts are present and blood-meals are readily available, bed bugs will develop rapidly, and infestations will quickly progress and become unmanageable.

  • How do bed bugs reproduce?

    They have an interesting form of reproduction known as traumatic insemination. Male bed bugs use their copulatory organ to puncture the body wall of the female’s abdomen, and inject their sperm directly into a specialized organ.

    After successfully mating, female bed bugs typically lay about 5-7 eggs per week. One female lays anywhere from 200 to 500 eggs in her lifetime.

  • What are bed bugs most attracted to?

    Bed bugs are attracted by multiple cues from their human hosts, including body heat, CO2 exhalation (such as with humans) and human-specific odors.

  • Why do you get bed bugs?

    Bed bugs are usually brought home accidentally on a piece of luggage, backpack, second-hand mattress or used piece of furniture. Bed bugs are found in 4 star hotels as well as low-end motels, and in any home, regardless of the race, ethnicity or culture of its inhabitants. Bed bugs also don’t discriminate between those who are clean and those in need of a shower.

    A dirty or cluttered house has nothing to do with bed bug attraction. However, rooms with extensive clutter can provide more places for bed bugs to hide, and therefore make bed bugs harder to remove.

  • How do bed bugs spread or travel?

    Bed bugs are very effective and efficient travelers. Bed bugs do not fly, jump or want to live on humans (compared to head lice who prefer to live in human hair). Bed bugs hitchhike on personal belongings such as luggage or backpacks, or in items such as used furniture, and are transported via humans to new places which they can then infest.

    Once bed bugs have infested an area, they can then spread out locally to infest adjacent rooms (in houses and hotels) or other units (in apartment buildings).They do this by crawling into openings such as vents, electrical conduits of adjoining walls or even beneath doors into hallways to enter and infest other areas.

  • How fast do bed bugs move?

    Bed bugs can move pretty fast, with adults crawling up to 5 feet in about a minute.

  • How do bed bugs transfer from person to person?

    They transfer on personal objects via close proximity. A person can transport bed bugs on an infested item, such as a backpack, handbag, or piece of luggage. Once set down, bed bugs will leave these items in search of a blood-meal and can climb onto other items – spreading the infestation. Bed bugs can also be transferred via the purchase of used, infested furniture, or second-hand mattresses.

  • Why do bed bugs seem to bite certain people?

    Bed bugs may be biting, but if a person doesn’t have a reaction, they might not know it. It also depends on where the bed bugs are infesting. For example, two people can be in a bed, but if the cluster of bed bugs are closer to one person, that may result in that person getting bitten more than the other person. Over time, as the bed bugs reproduce and the infestation level increases, the other person will most likely be bitten as well.

  • When are bed bugs most active?

    Bed bugs are usually most active at night. They prefer to feed when you are asleep and less likely to move or wake up as a result of them feeding. However, bed bugs will adapt to take advantage of a food source. If you work at night and are home during the day, they can feed off of you during the day while you are sleeping. In a movie theater, where it’s dark all the time, bed bugs will feed off patrons during the day.

  • What do bed bugs smell like?

    Some people describe bed bugs as smelling like coriander or cilantro of varying intensities – depending on the level of infestation. When infestation levels are low, most of the time, there is no smell. Specially trained bed bug scent-detecting dogs can detect bed bug odors in small infestations of even just 1 or 2 bed bugs.

  • Where, besides mattresses, can I find bed bugs?

    Bed bugs prefer to live as close to their human host as possible (without actually living on the humans themselves) in order to easily access and acquire their blood meals. Since they prefer to feed on humans when they are sedentary, bed bugs will hide close to places where humans sleep or sit. Examples of these places include cracks or crevices in objects on night stands such as alarm clocks, behind chipped paint or torn wallpaper on walls adjacent to beds, on ceilings or behind wall hangings suspended above beds or couches.

  • What times of the year are bed bugs most active?

    Bed bugs don’t really follow any season. However, pest management professionals tend to perform more bed bug services in the summer and early fall. This seems to correlate with the way we travel as a society, going on the most vacations during the summer and early fall. Travelers pick up bed bugs, bring them home, and it can take a month or more before they realize they now have an infestation. 

    Bed bugs do not hibernate, and since they typically live in temperature controlled environments they can show up during winter months as well.

  • Do bed bugs harm people?

    Bed bugs do not transmit disease. The medical significance of bed bugs (in addition to the fact that they feed on human blood) is associated with secondary infections at bite sites due to scratching open bites. 

    Probably the most problematic side effects from bed bug bites are the psychological ones. Experiencing a bed bug infestation can be a very emotional and highly stressful experience. The idea of little bugs living in your bed and drinking your blood can be creepy to say the least. Not to mention that there is still a social stigma associated with bed bugs, whereby many people think that infestations have something to do with personal or household hygiene or social status. And while things like hygiene and social status have nothing to do with getting bed bugs, unfortunately these are myths that are alive and well among the masses.

History of bed bugs

  • How did we nearly eradicate bed bugs?

    At one time bed bugs were nearly wiped out in the civilized world. This was due to stronger chemical treatments that were commonly used. These days concerns over the effect of those chemicals have caused them to fall into disuse.

  • Why are bed bugs back?

    Newer chemical treatments have not proven to be as effective as those used in the past. Before the 1950’s, there was heavy use of a chemical known as DDT. DDT was a very effective material, however, it had a negative impact on the environment and its use was discontinued in the US. 

    Pest control methods have also changed. In the past pest management professionals were very liberal with insecticide applications. Current technicians are more cautious with their applications and most treatments consist low amounts of safer and more environmentally friendly products. Additionally, increasing regulations on pesticide use have put strict limitations on the amount and places where insecticides can be applied. 

    Some bed bugs have developed a resistance to modern chemical treatments. Furthermore, very few newer chemicals are expected to enter the market in the future due to the high standards of safety set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect human health and the environment. 

    Increased international travel to and from distant parts of the world is a likely contributor to the resurgence of bed bugs in North America as well as several other developed countries. In many parts of the world, bed bugs have always been a problem and travelers staying in bed bug prone areas may be bringing them home in their luggage.

Bed bug bite questions

  • How do bed bugs bite?

    Bed bugs have beak-like mouthparts (proboscis) that are specifically designed to cut skin and suck blood. The proboscis is kept tucked beneath the bed bug when not in use. 

    When bed bugs feed, the proboscis is placed at a right angle to the skin, and the bugs rock back and forth during insertion. Once in the skin, cutting parts of the proboscis slide through the tissues until a suitable blood vessel is found, and the blood is then sucked up. The pressure from the blood in the vessel is used to transmit the blood into the insect. 

    The bed bug swells as is fills with blood, and feeding may take anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. Similar to mosquitoes, when a bed bug bites, it releases anticoagulant and anesthetic compounds that keeps the blood flowing freely and makes the bite virtually pain-free. After feeding bed bugs will quickly return to their hiding place, where they will spend several days digesting the blood-meal. 

    Bed bugs are sensitive to disturbance and will remove their proboscis to discontinue feeding if the food source moves, or becomes restless. Once settled, bed bugs will re-insert their proboscis and begin to feed again. This behavior can sometimes explain multiple bites in the same, or nearby, location.

  • How do you cure bed bug bites?

    Bed bug bites can be itchy and become inflamed, but generally do not require medical attention. If you are worried or think you are having any kind of reaction contact a physician.

  • How do you stop bed bugs from biting?

    If bed bugs are present, they will bite. There is really no way to stop them from biting if they are in your home.

  • Can bed bug bites be dangerous?

    As of right now, bed bugs have never been proven to transmit any disease organism to humans. Studies are always being conducted and this could change down the road.

Bed bug control questions

  • How do you get rid of bed bugs permanently?

    While you can eradicate a bed bug infestation, there is no way to prevent future infestations, due to the nature of how bed bugs are brought into human structures. The key to preventing future infestations is educating yourself. Learn how bed bugs travel, and how you got them, and then change that behavior to make sure that you don’t get them again. Additionally, be vigilant for bed bugs and regularly inspect your bed or other at-risk areas. The earlier you detect an infestation, the easier it will be to get rid of them. 

    There are a variety of bed bug treatments that can be used to remediate a bed bug infestation, but none can prevent you from bringing them home with you in the future.

    Some bed bug treatments include: 

    • Insecticides 
    • Fumigation – involves sealing off the entire house and introducing a gas to eliminate all pests inside the home. 
    • Heat treatments – The use of heat to control bed bugs has been recently adopted by the pest management industry. Heat has been shown to be highly effective at killing all life-stages of bed bugs and is now recognized as one of the most effective treatment solutions. Heat is used in many ways to treat bed bugs, such as in clothes dryers (for clothes and bedding), through steamers (for upholstery and mattresses), and in the form of heat chambers and portable heaters for furnishings or entire rooms. The latter two methods are commonly referred to as heat treatments.

  • How do professionals get rid of bed bugs?

    An expert in bed bug removal can use a variety of treatment methods. Ehrlich bed bug pest control experts have a variety of methods to detect and get rid of bed bugs. The bed bug pest control expert should work with the customer to determine what options will work best in each situation.

  • What is the most effective bed bug treatment?

    It all depends on the situation. The use of a heat treatment, in conjunction with some chemical applications, has proven to be very effective. However, conventional treatments with chemical treatments can also eliminate infestations.

  • How do you get rid of bed bugs with heat?

    A bed bug control professional will use portable heaters to heat areas where bed bugs have been detected to temperatures in excess of 125°F. It is a careful balance because high temperatures (over 150°F) can damage objects within the treatment zone. Bed bugs are sensitive to high temperatures and exposure to 122°F for one minute will effectively kill bed bugs and their eggs.

  • When should you call a professional?

    Do not delay in calling a professional if you suspect that you have bed bugs. Do-it-yourself bed bug treatments are rarely effective, and can make the problem worse.

  • Why are bed bugs so hard to get rid of?

    It’s not that bed bugs are hard to kill, it’s that they are experts at hiding. If you miss just one area with a few bed bugs, the infestation can bounce back. Additionally, bed bug eggs are resistant to most chemicals. Therefore, multiple treatments are required in order to ensure that all eggs have hatched and the nymphs were treated.

  • How do you get rid of bed bugs naturally?

    There are no effective natural methods on the market for bed bug removal. If you are looking for a more environmentally friendly option, then a heat treatment may be the best option. Although heat treatments are usually done in combination with chemical treatments, they can also be used as a stand-alone treatment.

  • How can you detect bed bugs in a hotel room?

    You can do a full inspection, looking for bed bugs, cast skins and fecal staining by checking: 

    • The mattress - including the corners, mattress cover, blankets and sheets 
    • The box spring – including seams, dust ruffles and attached bed frame or legs 
    • The headboard and wall hangings above the bed. Headboards can sometimes be removed from the wall and can be inspected. Check behind wall hangings, especially around the frame edges 
    • All accessible areas around the bed – including the night stand and any objects on it, such as an alarm clock, and lamp bases.

Bed bug prevention questions

  • How do you avoid bed bugs in while traveling?

    In order to prevent bed bug infestations, it’s important to eliminate ways for bed bugs to hitchhike onto your belongings. Don’t leave your suitcase on the bed or on the floor. Instead, keep your suitcase on the luggage rack, coffee table or in the bathtub. Do not place clothing in the drawers or piled up on the floor. Keep your clothes in the suitcase. Store dirty clothes inside a hanging plastic garbage bag or inside the suitcase as well.

  • Do you throw out furniture infested with bed bugs?

    You do not need to throw infested furniture away. Generally a pest management professional will not recommend disposal, unless the infestation is extreme. It’s generally more cost effective to treat infested furniture or individual objects.

  • Why do bed bugs come back after a treatment?

    Sometimes bed bugs are missed. They are very good at hiding, and even with a thorough inspection and treatment, they can be overlooked. Bed bugs can also be re-introduced from the original source of infestation, and/or any other location. It is important to determine the source of the initial infestation and take the necessary steps to prevent re-introduction from any location.



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