What's Your Risk of Getting Bed Bugs?

With infestations on the rise, it's a good idea to take preventive measures

Bed bug infestations are on the rise--not just in private homes, but in hotels, hospitals, college dorms, office buildings and clothing stores nationwide. Even the Empire State Building isn’t immune to the ubiquitous blood-sucking bugs. Though experts don’t believe they can transmit diseases, bed bugs can make your life a living nightmare. Not only are people their meal of choice, bed bugs are also one of the most difficult pests to eliminate. How can you keep yourself safe? We spoke with Missy Henriksen, Vice President of Public Affairs for the National Pest Management Association to find out.

Why do the number of bed bug reports seem so much higher this year?
Well, that’s the easy answer: The number of bed bugs seems higher, because there are more infestations. We just released our survey with the University of Kentucky, and found that over the past year, 95 percent of professionals surveyed reported treating bed bug infestations in just the last year. The numbers are on the rise, and that’s why we’re seeing it, feeling it and hearing it.
We try to focus on prevention. So, when you’re out shopping, check the clothing before trying it on and look for stains left by feeding bugs. When you’re trying them on, hang all of your belongings on the hooks in the dressing room. Try not to put anything on the floor. We also recommend washing your new clothes immediately in hot water (above 113 degrees Fahrenheit) when you get home. If you do believe you’ve gotten bed bugs from a store or other business, you should notify them as quickly as possible, so that they can take steps to have their business properly treated if necessary. What we’re finding with most commercial establishments is that most businesses recognize the repercussions that a bed bug infestation can have, so most are jumping on the problem immediately. Many are also developing proactive measures, such as ongoing inspections by professionals to make sure there are no bed bug infestations.

And do we know what’s to account for the rise?
The number one reason that’s been cited by pest professionals is increased travel, particularly international travel. Also, there’s some issue now with resistance of bed bugs to the available pesticide products.

Outside of beds, what's the most common place to find them?
I think people hear “bed bugs,” and they think, “Oh, my bed’s free. I’m fine.” But really the terminology is a misnomer. They can be found in nightstands, wall sockets… there’s a variety of different places where they can find a good hiding spot. Right now, we’ve been hearing more and more about bed bugs hiding out in atypical locations. In the survey we just released, 12 percent of pest professionals have treated hospitals for bed bugs, 24 percent had treated nursing homes, 17 percent office buildings, 9 percent transportation, and also laundromats and movie theaters.

How are they surviving in offices and stores--and why would they even be drawn there?
Bed bugs are hitchhikers, so they will travel with people and on their belongings. If someone has an infestation in their home, and they’ve got their gym bag that they may bring to the office for a workout during lunch, it’s very easy to see how those bed bugs will hitchhike in that person’s gym bag and then crawl out in search of a meal. They can survive up to a year in hiding without a blood meal. They may come into the office environment and lay dormant for awhile, reproducing during that time, until they feel they need to identify the next meal option.

Do they ever feed during the day?
They mostly will feed at night. They’re mainly nocturnal, but they can alter their habits. They may go in search of food during the day, or they may go into the next person’s belongings. There was the story recently of their being in the Empire State Building. I guess they traveled in on someone’s belongings. So they may go either in search for meals during the day if they need to, or they may travel into someone else’s belongings and then go home with that person, and then a new home has been infested. They try and stay close to the feeding sources. They’re attracted to the carbon dioxide that people emit. So they will try to stay as close as they can to their food source, but they will travel as well.

How can we spot them? What should we look for and how difficult are bed bugs to spot?
The adults are surprisingly easy to see. They’re actually 1/4-inch long. The best way to describe them is they look like an apple seed or lentil. If you’re looking around your home, you can look around the mattress of your bed. Look around the seams of the mattress, the dust ruffle, the head board, and then look for what’s called bed bug dirt, which is excrement. That’s going to be blackish and it can also look like dried blood. The other way of looking for bugs is by any repercussions on your body. Most people, when they are bitten by bed bugs, will show welts on their body. They’re very, very itchy, and they can really swell up.

This time of year, we’re often asked, “Is this a mosquito bite or a bed bug bite?” Mosquitoes bites we see in areas that are more exposed when we’re outside, like legs or arms. With bed bug bites, you can see them in areas that aren’t visible outside, like the trunk of your body. Also, the face is another area where bed bugs may sometimes bite. And often times, they’re in multiples--what we’re calling breakfast, lunch and dinner. You may see three bites in a line pattern up and down the same area.

When is the best time to spot them?
If the infestation is large enough, you should be able to see them in daytime. However, they come out more often when we’re sleeping. When we’re sleeping, we don’t feel them biting us because they inject an anesthesia. If you have a smaller infestation, they’re going to be much more difficult to spot. And the babies are almost impossible to see.

If, upon inspection, we don’t see anything, does that mean we’re in the clear?
Unfortunately not. They really are hiders. They don’t like to be seen. If you do have a bite and you are concerned, you should contact a professional, because they are one of the most difficult pests to treat.

What if we’ve been in a hotel or home that has bed bugs?
Hotels are one of the most heavily reported areas of bed bug infestations. If you’re staying in a hotel, there are certain things you can do to minimize your likelihood of bringing them into your home.

Keep your suitcase and clothes off of the floor. Bed bugs crawl through the floorboards, so that tends to be the first point of entry. Inspect luggage racks before leaving your suitcase on them. Many professionals have reported that they have found bed bugs hiding in the hollow metal legs of the racks. You stand a lesser chance of getting bed bugs in your suitcase by keeping it on your dresser. Some people are also choosing to seal their suitcases in large plastic bags during their hotel stay. You can also hang garments in the closet, or travel with your clothes in Ziploc bags.

Is there anywhere bed bugs won’t hide?
You can get them anywhere at this point, and that’s why vigilance is so important. There’s nothing that we can do to make ourselves 100 percent immune to bringing bed bugs into our home. What’s important for people to realize, and to help keep things in perspective, is that even though we are hearing so much about bed bug infestations right now, most people do not have them. The majority of people do not have infestations--and we’d like to keep it that way. So it’s important to know the steps you can take to minimize your risk, but it’s important for people to go on enjoying their daily activities, their vacations, getting out there and enjoying all life has to offer without being paranoid.

Have you ever had bed bugs? Chime in below.

Like This? Read These:
- How to Get Bed Bugs to Bug Off
- Keep Bed Bugs at Bay

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