Tips for Preventing the Spread of Bed Bugs: Most of the time, bed bugs start out as just one invader. A bed bug outbreak usually starts with one lone bug that was brought in from somewhere else. These bugs can easily get into our homes through a number of different ways. For example, in bags we bring to hotels or rental properties, in used furniture or other goods, when we visit friends or family whose homes may be infested, or when our daily jobs require us to go to places that may be infested. There are some things you can do to make sure you don’t bring an unwanted guest home with you. We will also talk about what to do if you think bed bugs have come into your home.
Tips for Preventing the Spread of Bed Bugs
Know the Warning Signs
The first thing you should do to stop and fight a pest problem is to learn as much as you can about the enemy. For bed bugs, this means being able to spot: i) possible bites or signs of feeding; ii) safe havens where they like to hide; iii) activity; and iv) things that aren’t bed bugs. Let’s talk about some things that will help you with all of these!
Bed bugs have to eat blood in order to stay alive, which is called “obligate hematophagy.” What do they want? Blood of people. They pierce human skin with a long, needle-like proboscis, which is their sucking mouthpart. If a bed bug feeds on you, it might leave behind a welt that looks like a mosquito bite. In the worst cases, it can lead to hives, wheals, or boils. Bed bug bites, on the other hand, don’t bother a lot of people.
Because of this, bites, sores that look like bites, or spots by themselves are not a good sign that you have a bed bug problem. But if you have sores, have recently been around bed bugs, or have travelled and think you may have been exposed, here are some bite patterns to look for:
- Bed bugs feed at night, when their possible hosts are asleep and not aware of them. This is why they leave behind clusters or lines of bites. There may be more than one bug in an area where skin meets a flat surface, like an arm sitting flat against a mattress. When more than one bed bug feeds at this point, it can cause lines or groups of bites. People who are very sensitive may also have reactions when a bed bug touches their skin with its proboscis but doesn’t go inside. When you probe, you can also get multiple bite reactions in a row or grouping. The “breakfast, lunch, and dinner” idea, on the other hand, is not important. Forget about it. There isn’t strong evidence to back the idea that three bites or probes (or a mix of the two) happen at the same time.
- Bugs that live in beds like to bite people in places where their skin is visible. Because of this, you might see more bites on the arms, legs, face, and neck than in places that aren’t covered. Bed bugs usually bite places that aren’t covered by clothes or sheets, unlike tick bites, which happen around the edges of clothing like socks, pants and pants.
Being bitten by bed bugs is almost certain to happen because they need to eat, but their physical appearance is at best questionable and at worst, not there at all (from an identification point of view). So, we want to say it again: the presence or lack of any kind of bites should not be used to confirm or deny that you have a bed bug problem. Instead, look for other signs of an infestation, such as faeces spots (Figure 1), exuviae (Figure 2), and, of course, live bugs.
When bed bugs lay their eggs, they hatch into “nymphs.” Nymphs go through five steps before they become adults. Adult bed bugs are oval, flattened, and dark brown bugs that look like this before they feed (Figure 3). They are swollen and dull red after a blood meal (Figure 4). From the first to the fifth instar, bed bugs are very different sizes when they are still young.
The first instars are tan to clear and small, making them hard to see. The fifth instars, on the other hand, can be almost as big and dark as an adult. In their fifth instar, nymphs are a dark, creamy tan colour. In their first instar, they are almost clear. After a blood meal, all young bed bugs get swollen and bright red to dull red (Figure 1).
Bed bugs are hard to spot, especially when they are young, because they are small, turn light when they hatch, don’t like light, and like to hide in small, dark places. It’s hard to see them on furniture, bags, backpacks, and other things that have zippers, seams, and folds in the fabric (Figure 2). They can hide in cracks that are as thin as a piece of paper.
It can be hard to find eggs when there are only a few of them because they are only 1/25th of an inch across. Because of these problems, a visual check for bed bugs must be thorough. You might also find it easier to start by looking for signs of movement rather than live bugs. Like looking for poop spots (Figure 1) or skins that have been shed (Figure 2), which are often left out in the open and can be easier to find. As soon as you see signs of life, bed bugs are probably close by. See Bedbugs – Biology and Management for more information on how to spot bed bugs.
Last but not least, you don’t want to get the problem wrong. There are many bugs that look like bed bugs. People always think that German cockroach nymphs (Figure 5), carpet beetles (Figure 6, Figure 7), ticks (Figure 8), and booklice (Figure 9) are bed bugs. Talk to a diagnostician if you’re not sure what you are dealing with. You can send a sample to our Plant Disease and Insect Clinic if you are in North Carolina.
Tips for Preventing the Spread of Bed Bugs
What Can You Do to Avoid an At-Home Infestation?
- Do some study on your trip destination before you go, and stay away from hotels or rental homes that have had bed bug problems in the past.
- Bring some trash bags made of plastic with you. You can use these to keep your clothes and other things safe during and after your stay.
- Before you move when you stay in a hotel, a rental home or any other place you haven’t been before, check the room for signs of bed bugs. This can be done by pulling back the bed’s covers and sheets to look for faeces spots (Figure 7) or other signs of an invasion. Check the mattress and box spring seams, as well as the headboard, bed frame, and any other tight or hidden spots. Bed bugs tend to gather in areas that are close to possible hosts, so start near the bed and work your way outward.
- Mattress covers are now used in a lot of places to keep bed bugs out. It’s smart and strategic to take this step to stop infestations. It doesn’t mean that there is an invasion going on. If your hotel or rental mattress comes in a box, don’t open it. It’s hard to seal them again. If it is resealed wrong, it loses its usefulness. If the cover tears during your stay, you should tell management right away.
- If you don’t know the place well, don’t put your bags on beds or on the floor next to beds. You can use the fold-out luggage stands at some hotels to pack and unpack your bags. However, these stands are not “bed bug proof,” so you should look for signs of bed bug activity, especially where the webbing goes around the frame. A trash bag (preferably a white or light-colored one so you can see any live bugs) is another way to store your bags. For even more safety, keep your bags in the bathtub. Bed bugs can still get through these surfaces, but it is harder for them to do so on smooth, slippery surfaces than on fabric or textured surfaces.
- If you find signs of bed bugs in your hotel or holiday room, don’t spray pesticides on them. Keep in mind that other people have used or will use the room, and many people are allergic to chemicals. Instead, tell the managers of the hotel or vacation rental what’s wrong. They probably have a programme in place to get rid of pests, and any spraying you do could be dangerous or even get in the way of their work. It’s also not less likely to bring a bed bug home if you spray.
- When you go to someone’s home or another place for work, bring as little as possible with you. Do not put things on a couch, chair, or the floor next to furniture. Instead, put them on a table or other hard surface. Things you bring inside should be easy to check, not like a bag or backpack, which could hide bed bugs that are looking for a new place to live.
- If your job requires you to go into houses that might have bugs, be careful about spraying repellents on your clothes. Chemicals that keep pests away may not bother you, but the people whose homes you visit might be allergic to them. There is also not a lot of proof that bug sprays work to get rid of bed bugs, but DEET shows some promise.
- When you go to a place, bring a change of clothes with you. Getting out of work clothes at the end of the day means putting them in a packed bag. When you get home, empty the bag into a dryer. Tumble dry work clothes twice on high heat.
- For used furniture and other household things, check the item(s) visually before taking them. If you don’t know how to inspect the thing, you should get help from a professional. To get bed bugs out into the open (if they are there), you can slowly breathe into cracks and gaps. Pay close attention to places that are hidden and where body parts stay still for long periods of time. This is especially important for the hidden side of foot rests and kick plates on chairs and recliners. DO NOT bring something used into the house until you know it does not have bed bugs. Bed bugs often hide in used electronics, furniture, and clothes that you rent or buy. Portable heat treatment chambers are useful for smaller things that are infested, but they are pricey. It’s not a good idea to accept or buy furniture that has bugs on it, even if it can be fixed. It is much harder to say that furniture like couches and recliners are “bed bug free” than it is to say that small things are. In those situations, the lower price of the item is not worth the possible cost of treating a bed bug outbreak.
What Should You Do If You Find Bed Bugs During Travel?
- Tell the property’s owner or manager right away so they can fix the problem as soon as possible. You should not try to fix or handle the problem yourself, especially if you need to use a pesticide. This could lead to health issues, make the bed bug problem worse, and even legal action.
- Take your clothes and other things back into your bags or into trash cans if you have already unpacked. If you can, put your luggage in trash bags as well (do this twice) and tape or tie the bags shut. If you don’t close the bags properly, you could bring crawling bugs into your car or into the bags of other people on a plane. Do not use chemicals on your clothes or bags.
- Check your clothes carefully to make sure that bed bugs didn’t get on them while you were handling things that you think might have them. It is important not to get poisons on your skin, hair, or clothes. It’s not likely that you will have bed bugs in your hair or on your skin for very long because they don’t stay on their hosts like head lice do. If you are still worried about bed bugs on your body after the check, take a shower with regular shampoo and body soap. After that, just comb or brush your hair well.
- When you get home, don’t open or unpack your bags and luggage unless you can keep the items inside. If you want to find bed bugs more easily, open them outside, in a garage, or in the bathtub.
- Put clothes that can be washed in a trash bag and then put them right into the dryer. If you need to take your laundry to a wash, make sure the bags are closed again before you carry them or put them back in your car.
- Use high heat for at least two passes when you dry things. Clothes that can’t be washed or dried might need to be dry cleaned. Once the clothes are dry, you can wash, iron, and do other normal laundry on them.
- Store clothes in trash bags with lids until you’re ready to dry them. Do not put dirty clothes in piles on the floor or on a nearby table next to clean clothes. Bed bugs could get out and start living on these clean things.
- In some situations, you might want to get rid of clothes or other things that could be infected. But before you take them outside, put them in trash bags. If you don’t, you might bring them inside with you. Throw these things away right away in a closed trash can, bin, or at the dump. Don’t give away or leave things that could be infected next to a trash can or dumpster where someone else could pick them up.
- Bags like backpacks and duffels can often be dried in a clothes machine on high heat without getting damaged. When you need to dry bigger bags or other things that won’t fit in a regular dryer, you can use a portable cleaner or lightly spray them with insecticide. Use a spray with pyrethrins or any other insecticide that says on the package that it can kill bed bugs and treat fabric. Many groups of bed bugs are now very resistant to insecticides, so make sure that all the bugs are dead before you think the treatment is over. Heat treatment is an effective (but sometimes pricey) option to pesticides if the first one doesn’t work. Before you use the luggage again, clean all of its treated areas with soapy water.
- It’s possible that bed bugs will die if you put things in sealed bags in your car (or on your driveway) on a hot day, but only if the temperature inside the bags hits 122°F (the thermal death point). Keep in mind that putting clothes and other things in trash bags and putting them in your car may actually keep bedbugs and their eggs warm by making cool places where they won’t get too hot. To prevent this, pack things loosely, lay them out flat, and don’t fill bags too much. If you use this method, you might want to keep these things away from things that aren’t infested until you’re sure they aren’t. When you open the package, make sure to look for live insects. If there were eggs, they may have already hatched, and it’s hard to see first instars that have just hatched.
- If you follow these steps, you won’t need to treat your home for bed bugs. Importantly, don’t try to treat things that might be infected with a fogger. Some foggers may say on the package that they can kill bed bugs, but studies have shown that they don’t work very well.
If you have recently travelled or bought used items and have done everything above and are still afraid that you have a bed bug problem, you should call a professional pest control company. If needed, they should be able to do a check and treat the problem. But if you carefully follow all of the above steps, you should be able to i) never pick up or spread bed bugs while travelling or doing normal things, and ii) never get bed bugs in your own house. Please get in touch with our urban and structural entomology extension experts if you have any more questions.