We can all know the rhyme: Good night, sleep tight, and don't let the bed bug bite.
Unfortunately, the sentiment is becoming an increasingly real concern. According to the National Pest Management Association, bed bug complaints have increased 500 percent in recent years.
For years when people talked about bed bugs the thought of run down, flea bag hotels and slovenly living conditions. Robert Soileau, Manager of J&J Exterminating in Lake Charles, says the incidence of bed bugs in the United States is now increasing to the point where they can affect anyone and anywhere. "We are definitely seeing a resurgence of this problem. It's much worse in bigger cities, but this pest migrates, and is spreading across the country by literally hitching a ride with unsuspecting travelers."
For centuries, bed bugs were a common pest wherever humans lived. Entomology experts believe bed bugs traveled to North America with the colonists. From the 17th century until World War II, people slept with these bloodthirsty parasites biting them, and accepted it as inevitable. Then, just after World War II, strong pesticides like DDT and chlordane came into widespread use. Soileau says bed bugs nearly disappeared completely over several decades of heavy pesticide use. Bed bug infestations were limited, and bed bugs were no longer considered a major pest.
Eventually, these pesticides were proven harmful to people's health and the environment. The U.S. banned DDT in 1972, and a total ban on chlordane followed in 1988. People's attitudes about pesticides also changed as the environmental movement became increasingly popular. Knowing chemicals in pesticides could cause harm, many people limited use of them in their homes.
Soileau says the pesticides used in homes today do a better job of targeting specific pest populations. "Rather than spray a broad spectrum pesticide that would kill any insect pests in the home, products such as chemical baits and traps are used to kill specific, common pests, like ants, termites or roaches. Since bed bugs feed only on blood, they aren't attracted to these pest control baits."
Higher frequency of international travel is also believed to have played a role in the return of the bed bug. At about the same time as broad spectrum pesticide use declined, less expensive air travel allowed people to visit places where bed bugs still persisted. Bed bugs hadn't made headlines in years, so most travelers never considered the possibility of bringing bed bugs home. Stowaway bed bugs in luggage and clothing made their way back to U.S. cities and towns where they had been eradicated decades ago.
Soileau says bed bugs now infest numerous public places, where they can crawl onto clothing and travel with you right into your home. Hotels top the list of bed bug hideouts, but Soileau says they can also be found in theaters, airplanes, subways, trains, buses, prisons, and dormitories..
"Your best guard against bed bugs is information. Know what they look like, what conditions they thrive in, and the signs that indicate they are present," says Soileau.
Bed bugs are small insects less than a quarter of an inch in length. They can live for up to two years and reproduce by laying small white eggs in clothing, furniture, and sheets. Bed bugs have been found to carry a variety of diseases, though no conclusive evidence suggests that they can actually transmit these diseases. They feed on human blood, which makes their bites painful. Bed bug bites are usually along a straight line on the body, with a small indentation in the center of each bite.
Although there is sometimes a stigma of being unclean attached to bed bugs, experts say this is actually not accurate. "Bed bugs are transmitted via luggage, dry cleaning, pets, and humans, and they are as likely to appear at a five-star hotel as they are in a messy house," says Soileau.
So how do you know if bed bugs have made your house their new home? Soileau says you can inspect the area in and around your bed thoroughly using a flashlight. Small blood spatters are a telltale sign of bed bug activity. "Also check the bed frame, and any crevices around the bed area where bed bugs might hide. Placing glue traps around the perimeter of the bed is a good way of checking whether bed bugs are in the area. If you find any in the traps, call a bed bug control expert right away. Bed bugs reproduce quickly, and the longer you let the problem go, the bigger the problem will become"
Soileau says there's no need to panic or throw away your mattress. "And don't start fogging or using insecticides haphazardly. Bed bugs are experts at hiding, and bed bug treatment must be very focused and specific."