Bedbugs: How to Know When Youve Got Them, How to Get Rid of Them, and How to Get Over The Distress They Cause

The popular children’s rhyme gets it right: Bedbugs do most commonly feed on humans at night while they’re sleeping (though they can sometimes bite during the day), and they’re the type of pest you really don't want to have to deal with. (1)

Bedbugs (or Cimex lectularius and Cimex hemipterus, their scientific names) are blood-feeding parasites that can be found all around the world. You mostly hear about them in urban areas or places with a great deal of occupant turnover, such as hotels, apartment buildings, and college dormitories, because that’s where they spread most easily. (2)

Bedbugs were nearly extinct after World War II thanks to the use of dichloro- diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT). The United States banned DDT in 1972 because of its negative environmental effects, and the less-effective pesticides that came after it, along with a rise in international travel and immigration, has contributed to the bedbug resurgence we’re experiencing today. (3)

What Do Bedbugs Look Like and How Do I Know I Have Them?

Bedbugs are reddish-brown insects that feed on blood, primarily blood from humans. (4) Bedbugs crawl, but cannot fly or jump like many other insects do. (1) Also unlike cockroaches and flies, bedbugs have no relationship with cleanliness and can be found in the cleanest homes and hotel rooms, says Scott Svenheim, an entomologist with Truly Nolen Pest Control in Tuscon, Arizona.

“Many people believe that bedbugs are too small to see with the naked eye,” adds Jerry Lazarus, the owner of the Massachusetts-based Braman Termite & Pest Elimination. Not so: Adult bedbugs range in size from 1 to 7 millimeters. But they’re very good at hiding. To spot them, you’ll have to catch them moving to or from their hiding spots, which can be hard to do, since they’re most active while people are sleeping. They have six legs and their bodies are small and flat, which makes it easy for them to hide within the cracks and crevices of your home.

Female bedbugs produce about one egg per day. The eggs are white and are very hard to see without magnification, Lazarus says. The eggs take about one week to hatch in rooms that are between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit (F). The nymphs that hatch from those eggs look like adult bedbugs, but they’re smaller and are translucent until they have their first blood meal, Svenheim says. (1) The nymphs take about five weeks to mature, and during those five weeks they shed their skin five times, each time after feeding. (5)

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Most bug bites do not pose a serious risk to your health. But some can come with very serious consequences.

Bedbug Bites Can Be Intensely Itchy — or You May Not Even Notice Them

Bedbugs are sneaky insects. They bite in the middle of the night (usually about one hour before dawn), injecting an anesthetic and an anticoagulant that makes it painless and unlikely that you’ll feel a thing. After feeding for about five minutes, the bugs will retreat back to their hiding places.

For most people, the first sign of bedbugs is bites on the body. The bites will show up in any place that’s exposed while you sleep, such as the arms, legs, back, and neck.

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Bites can look different from person to person. “In some people, they can cause allergic reactions, although some people don’t react at all,” Lazarus says. In most cases, a bedbug bite looks a lot like a mosquito bite — a red, itchy bump on your skin that appears within 24 hours of your being bitten. You may notice a line of bedbug bites, though it’s also possible to see just one bite on its own.

Though the idea of having bedbugs in your home can be troubling, the bugs themselves don’t pose a threat to your health (nor do their bites). (1) “These bites can't spread disease to humans, but they can be itchy and uncomfortable," says Steve Durham, the president of EnviroCon Termite & Pest in Tomball, Texas.

You likely won’t need to visit a doctor as a result of getting bitten by a bedbug. (70005' target='_blank' rel='noopener noreferrer' >6) Usually, the bites will heal within two weeks on their own, though you may want to apply an anti-itch cream or corticosteroid cream to the area to relieve itchiness. (7)

Bedbugs Are Notoriously Tough to Get Rid of (but You CAN Do It)

"One of the main reasons people fear bedbug infestations more than most other pests is because they are notoriously tough to get rid of,” Durham says. That’s why many people turn to professionals for help. “Most do-it-yourself attempts end in failure and frustration, since over-the-counter products can be misapplied and infested areas can be easily missed,” Lazarus says. “Oftentimes, this means spending a lot of your own money and time and still having a problem.” (Plus, failure to correctly use DIY extermination products can be dangerous to your health and those you live with.)

If you decide to go the professional route, there are three common treatment options the pest control expert may take:

  1. Insecticide application Use of insecticides is the most common route to get rid of bedbugs. Treating bedbugs this way requires preparation, such as washing bedding and clothing and placing items that can’t be washed in garbage bags out in the hot sun. Sometimes, a few rounds of insecticides are needed to get rid of the bedbug population entirely.
  2. Heat remediation A pest control professional will heat the infected space to temperatures that kill bedbugs, usually between 120 and 130 degrees F. This method requires much less prep work than insecticide application and usually will successfully eliminate the bedbugs and the eggs on the first treatment, so there’s likely no need for a follow-up visit.
  3. Fumigation This option is less commonly available. It works by injecting a vacated building with a gas that kills the bedbugs inside.

You can also try to apply insecticides yourself, though the products available to professionals are usually more effective than those available to consumers. When choosing a product, look for one that is registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and specifically lists bedbugs on the label. (8) You’ll likely need to do a few rounds of treatment, because it can be very difficult to find and kill bedbug eggs.

The Insecticides Used to Kill Bedbugs Can Be Harmful to People (and Pets), Too, if Used Incorrectly

It’s important to approach bedbug treatment carefully, because insecticides that are used to kill bedbugs can also be harmful to you if you’re exposed to unsafe levels. Symptoms of unsafe pesticide exposure include vomiting, dizziness, headaches, and trouble breathing. (9)

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When they’re used safely and according to the label, insecticides shouldn’t pose a threat to you or any other family members or pets you live with, Lazarus says. Insecticides are sold as dusts, liquids, aerosols, and foggers. There are also organic and natural products on the market, though some research has found they’re not as effective at killing bedbugs as traditional insecticides. (10)

If you hire a professional to treat the bedbugs in your home, you’ll want to ask them a few safety-related questions, including:

  • What insecticides do you plan to use? You can look up the products yourself (or consult your doctor or vet about them) to see if there are any precautions you need to take. (11)
  • Do you have a list of references? Call the references to ask about their experience working with this company.
  • Are you a certified, licensed pesticide applicator or a licensed technician?
  • Do you use integrated pest management techniques? This effective approach attacks bedbugs from all angles and treats them with a combination of heat, steam, and insecticides. (12)

Watch out for insecticide products sold over the internet that come from outside the U.S. — they may contain ingredients that have been banned by the EPA, which could mean health (and potentially legal) issues for you. (13)

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