You’ve heard it a million times: Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite! But while this common refrain marks the childhoods of most Americans, many of us don’t realize just how common these insects are – even upscale establishments have been affected by bed bugs.

If this insect is affecting your property, it’s important to take into account bed bug statistics, physiology, habits, identification of bites, controlling the problem and the types of treatments you can use.

The Challenges of Bed Bug Elimination

Bed bugs are notoriously difficult to eradicate. Adept at hiding, they reproduce at lightning speed and lay eggs that resist most types of treatment. This usually means several rounds of treatment as well as concerted efforts to update your environment and make it far less bed bug-friendly. The fastest way to rid your environment requires multiple steps:

  • Inspecting beds and furniture frequently
  • Clearing clutter
  • Finding all sources of infestation throughout the house
  • Determining whether your infestation is coming through the yard or from neighbors’ houses
  • Getting help from everyone living in your home, complex or neighborhood

The good news is if you make the effort to change your environment to be much less hospitable to bed bugs, you’ll greatly reduce the chances of their return.

Facts and Statistics

Bed bugs feed exclusively on blood, usually feeding for five to ten minutes at a time. The species most commonly found in human dwellings is Cimex lectularius, and has a five-to ten-day life cycle of laying eggs, hatching, feeding and retiring to a secluded place to begin the cycle anew. Bed bugs in that life cycle do not eat after the feeding phase, so you may notice that they come in waves. Yet after a few generations, they may be more or less a constant presence.

According to the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), bed bugs are a frequent pest in American households. Nearly all (99.6%) pest professionals have treated them in the past year, unchanged from 2013, but higher compared to five, 10 and 15 previous years. According to 68% of respondents in that same survey, bed bugs remain the most challenging pest to treat.

Summer is a particularly busy season for bed bug exterminators, likely because these insectsoften travel with people from one place to another and are

found in all 50 states.

Identify the Problem

The first step in discovering how bed bugs made their way into your home and how to get them out, you have to know what to look for. Referred to as red coats, mahogany flats, or chinches, the adult bed bug is a broadly flattened, ovoid insect with greatly reduced wings. Before feeding, bed bugs are usually brown in color and range from 6 to 9.5 mm in length. After a bloodmeal, the body is swollen and red in color.

While the most common locations are the seams of mattresses or the inside of box springs, bed bugs may be found in carpet, cracks in the walls, other furniture in bedrooms and often in other rooms of the house. They’re also often detected in hotels, dormitories, nursing homes, and even sleeper cars on trains. Because they are daytime as well as nighttime feeders, they can be found anywhere humans stay for extended periods of time, from offices and schools to shops and even buses and cars.

Even if you can’t find the bed bugs themselves in your inspection, you can look for signs of their presence, including brown to black stains from mattresses and bloodstains left behind.

Hitching a Ride

Bedbugs travel on clothing stored in boxes or suitcases, backpacks, and shoes. Blankets, pillows and other travel accessories meant for sleeping are especially at risk.

At home, bed bugs may also set up in areas outside the bedroom, oftentimes ones you wouldn’t expect at all. They may hide inside wallpaper or picture frames, switchplates for lights and electrical sockets, in drawers and even screw heads, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Identify Bed Bug Bites

Identifying bed bug bites is fairly easy. Bites typically occur on areas like the face, neck, arms and hands – skin that is exposed during sleep. Red welts develop at the site of the bites, which are often arrayed in regular rows or zigzags, or clustered in patches. Bites may take a few days to manifest, so they may not always correlate with the presence of bed bugs at the time.

While bed bug bites look similar to those of many other insects, the main indication that the bites are from bed bugs is the clustering pattern and that they usually correlate with sleep. In serious cases, bites may become inflamed or blistered. However, they typically only become red and itchy for a few days before fading. If you develop a rash or serious blisters, contact a medical professional.

While some claims have been made about bed bugs carrying diseases such as leprosy, there has been no proof that these insects are disease vectors – or carriers of bacteria or viruses.

Inspect and Control Spreading

To ascertain where bed bugs might be hiding, it’s important to keep an eye out for any signs of them, particularly after returning from traveling. If you see them or notice bites, you’ll need to address the problem immediately.

There are many methods for controlling the spread of bed bugs beyond treating with natural or chemical agents. But due to the difficulty of the task, you will need to do more than simply treat them once or twice. If your environment remains conducive to bed bugs after treating them, they will likely return.

This means removing places for bed bugs to hide. Pull beds and furniture at least six inches away from the wall, because bed bugs often lurk in baseboards and cracks in plaster and climb onto furniture from there. Clear clutter and get rid of standing piles of recycling or garbage like old newspapers. Talk to neighbors to let them know you’ve experienced a problem and find out if they have as well.

Non-Chemical Treatments

If you’re wondering how to kill bed bugs without chemicals, the good news is there are quite a few natural treatment options that are generally considered quite effective.

Bed bug coaster traps are placed underneath each post of the bed, and have rough outer faces to help bed bugs climb into the trap but smooth inner walls to keep them there.

Diatomaceous earth also works very well on bed bugs. This naturally occurring substance is made of silica, a desiccant that dries insects out on contact with them, but is not harmful to people. However, you should avoid coming into contact with this drying substance. The best way to use this is to sprinkle it in affected areas and then vacuum it up before sleeping in that area. Remove bedding before using it on the bed, then replace afterward.

Lavender oil is also widely reported to be an effective deterrent against bed bugs, though this is mostly anecdotal. Do not expect to rely on this method alone.

Chemical Treatments

While natural methods can be very helpful and may be sufficient to stave off some infestations, it is not always possible to eradicate bed bugs without chemicals. The most common chemical bed bug treatment is bed bug spray, which you can either administer by hand to affected areas or use in a fogger. While foggers have a mixed reputation and the EPA does not guarantee their effectiveness, you can use them to fumigate an entire room or area of the house. If you choose to utilize a fogger, be sure to understand how they work read all instructions on using them properly. Not all bed bug spray is FDA-approved or safe for your family. Be sure also to check all chemicals to ensure that they’re tested and legal.

Evaluation and Ongoing Prevention

To be sure that your treatments remain effective, it’s important to remain vigilant. This means vacuuming all suitcases and washing all clothing and bedding after returning from vacation. Especially after you’ve just returned home, but also on an ongoing basis, check your sheets for signs of blood or excrement spots. Keep a flashlight on hand so you can perform inspections in dark crevices and under the bed as well. Check pet beds as well, since bed bugs may also feed on dogs and cats.

If you are taking on secondhand furniture, inspect it thoroughly for signs before bringing it into the house. If you are unsure, do not bring it home.

When to Call a Professional

If an infestation continues for weeks or months, and if repeated treatments fail to be effective, it’s time to call in bed bug exterminators. These professionals can assist you in ridding your home of bed bugs once and for all, and can offer specific tips that will help you keep your home free and clear in the future.

While bed bugs might be a pesky problem, know that there are no long-lasting effects of bed bug bites, and that they are more a nuisance to you and your family than anything else. However, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of time-consuming treatment.