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What Are Bed Bugs?

Infestations Occur in Mattresses, Compromising Your Sleep Environment

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Updated February 10, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

What Are Bed Bugs?

How's this for something to keep you up at night? Bed bugs are quickly spreading across the country. These wingless bugs, which feed on the blood of humans, tend to do their business in the evening, when lights are out -- and you are lying still. Beyond the "ick" factor that having them in your home can bring, you may wake up to bite marks or even suffer interrupted sleep.

It's important to know that while their bites can cause irritating symptoms, such as skin itchiness, they are unlikely to cause serious disease. That said, it's important to deal with an infestation immediately to protect yourself -- and your rest time. They can be quite difficult to eradicate, though, and learning more about them is a good first step to ensuring that your sleep environment stays bed bug free.

What Do Bed Bugs Look Like?

Bed bugs are easily seen by the naked eye and are oval-shaped and flat. They are reddish brown in color (though immature bed bugs may appear light yellow). They are approximately 5 mm long. They may resemble unfed ticks or even small cockroaches. After feeding, bed bugs increase in length by 30% to 50% and in weight by 150% to 200%.

Bed Bugs Hide Out

Bed bugs live 6 to 12 months, but they can survive up to one year without feeding.

They tend to avoid light and feed at night, seeking their hosts by sensing warmth. They tend to hide within 1 to 2 meters of humans and are usually found in sleep environments. Their hiding places may include:

  • Seams in mattresses
  • Crevices in box springs
  • Backsides of headboards
  • Spaces under baseboards
  • Behind loose wallpaper
  • Behind hanging pictures

How Did I Get Them?

The places where you may encounter bed bugs are getting more varied. Bed bugs inhabit typical places such as homes, apartments, and hotel rooms. They may also be found in places such as hospitals, nursing homes, and dormitories -- even unexpected venues, such as laundromats and movie theaters.

Bed bugs generally require humans to move about. They may do so by clinging to furniture that eventually finds a new home, clothing, suitcases, used mattresses, or other personal items. They may also migrate short distances through holes in the wall or along water pipes or gutters.

How Big Is the Problem, Really?

A survey of exterminators by the National Pest Management Association and University of Kentucky suggests bed bugs are an increasing problem. Calls to rid sleep environments (and other places) of these uninvited guests are up 57% over the past five years. More than 95% of the exterminators have addressed an infestation in 2009. These findings are in line with prior research, including a report by Congress called "Don't Let the Bed Bugs Bite Act of 2009," which found bed bug populations increasing by 500% in the past few years.

The resurgence of bed bug populations may be do to a variety of factors, perhaps in combination, including:

  • International travel
  • Immigration
  • Pest control practices
  • Insecticide resistance
  • Living in close quarters

No matter the cause, these creepy creatures may become a nuisance that you can easily do without.

Sources:

Goddard, J. et al. "Bed Bugs (Cimex lectularius) and Clinical Consequences of Their Bites." JAMA. 2009;301(13):1358-1366.

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