A bed bug nymph in the process of ingesting a blood meal.
About the size of an apple seed, bed bugs lurk in cracks and crevices and feed on human blood. Though they don't transmit disease or pose any serious medical risk, the stubborn parasites leave itchy and unsightly bites. Once bed bugs take up residence in homes and businesses, they can be difficult to exterminate without professional help.
Appearance, lifestyle and habits
Bed bugs are flat, round and reddish brown, around a quarter-inch (7 millimeters) in length. The ones that typically plague humans are the species Cimex lectularius and Cimex hemipterus. The insects can be found around the world, but they have been spreading especially quickly in parts of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Europe, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The creatures don't have wings and they can't fly or jump. But their narrow body shape and ability to live for months without food make them ready stowaways and squatters. The creatures can easily hide in the seams and folds of luggage, bags and clothes. They also take shelter behind wallpaper and inside bedding, box springs and furniture. The ones that feed on people can crawl over 100 feet (30 meters) in a night, but typically creep within 8 feet (2.4 m) of the spot its human hosts sleep, according to the CDC.
Bed bugs reproduce by a gruesome a strategy appropriately named "traumatic insemination," in which the male stabs the female's abdomen and injects sperm into the wound. During their life cycle, females can lay more than 200 eggs, which hatch and go through five immature "nymph" stages before reaching their adult form, molting after each phase.
Bed bug bites
Bed bugs feed on the blood of humans (though some species have a taste for other mammals and birds, too) by inserting a sharp proboscis, or beak, into the victim's skin. The critters become engorged with blood in about 10 minutes, which fills them up for days.
The insects are most active at night, though not exclusively nocturnal. Bed bugs are attracted to warmth, moisture and the carbon dioxide released from warm-blooded animals, according to Purdue University. On sleeping human hosts, bed bugs often bite exposed areas of the body, such as the face, neck, arms and hands.
Bed bug bites are small, red, itchy and typically arranged in a row or cluster. Some people, however, have little visible reaction to the insects' nibbling and may not notice their home has been invaded until they actually see the insects.
The bites themselves don't pose any health risk, since bed bugs are not known to spread diseases, but an allergic reaction to the bites may require medical attention, CDC officials say. Excessively scratching the itchy, bitten areas also may increase the chance of a secondary skin infection. Antiseptic creams or lotions can be used to ward off infection and antihistamine can be used to treat the itching. And an infestation can take a psychological toll on those affected: People whose homes have been infested with bed bugs may have trouble sleeping for fear of being bitten in the night.
Infestation and treatment
Bed bugs often invade new areas after being carried there by clothing, luggage, furniture or bedding. The creatures don't discriminate between dirty and clean homes, which means even luxury hotels can be susceptible to bed bugs. The most at-risk places tend to be crowded lodgings with high occupant turnover, such as dormitories, apartment complexes, hotels and homeless shelters.
Getting rid of clutter may help to reduce the number of hiding places for bed bugs, but according to the CDC, the best way to prevent bed bugs is regular inspection for the signs of an infestation.
You should look for traces of the insects in the folds of your mattresses, box springs and other places where they are likely to hide. Besides the bugs themselves, other signs of their presence include the light brown empty exoskeleton shells that they shed after molting and the small, rust-colored spots from the blood-filled droppings they leave on mattress and furniture.
If you suspect an infestation, experts recommend finding a professional exterminator who has experience dealing with bed bugs. Sprayed insecticides are commonly used to treat infestations, and exterminators may also use nonchemical methods, such as devices to heat a room above 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius), a lethal temperature for bed bugs, according to the Mayo Clinic. You may have to throw out heavily infested mattresses and other items of furniture.