Despite their place in a cute childhood bedtime rhyme, an infestation of bed bugs can be the cause of quite a bit of pain and discomfort.
Bed bugs are small bugs with flat, oval bodies about the size of an apple seed under normal circumstances, although after feeding they grow in size and become more red in color. They can’t fly, but they can crawl very fast, allowing them to spread quickly; they also lay eggs — difficult to see because they’re the seize of a speck of dust — by the hundreds.
Bed bugs feed on human and animal blood, which they get by biting their hosts. These bites become itchy, inflamed, and can become painful if scratched excessively. They bite mostly at night, feeding from any exposed area of skin (unlike fleas, for example, which often concentrate around the ankles). You can tell a flea bite from a bed bug bite by the tell-tale red dot at the center of the welt: flea bites have them, bed bugs do not. Although they are considered a public health hazard, the good news is that unlike mosquitos, ticks, and other insects, bed bugs do not transmit disease.
How do beg bugs find their way into your home — and your bed? Their small size and flat bodies allow them to fit into small spaces unnoticed, and they’re often transferred via luggage, clothing, and used furniture, mattresses, boxsprings, or other objects.
Signs that bed bugs are present include bites or itchy areas that appear in the morning, as well as small patches of blood or dark, rust-colored specks (their fecal matter) on the sheets or mattress. You can check the lining of the boxspring, the area between the mattress and boxspring, and around the headboard for their shells; look for signs in your closet as well, since they often travel by clothing.
You may not be able to prevent a bed bug infestation altogether, but one step you can take is to thoroughly check all previously-owned materials you bring home. Sweep and vacuum regularly, and keep the area around beds and closets free of clutter. You may consider getting a plastic cover that encases the whole mattress, but be sure to leave it on for at least a year — bed bugs can live for up to a year without feeding, so they may remain alive even after several months. Pesticides can be used to eliminate them, but it’s best to consult an exterminator to recommend a safe one.