AUDIE CORNISH, host:
Bedbugs are back. At first, they appeared in places that you might expect - in dense city centers like New York, where officials may seek a bed bug czar, and San Francisco, which is trying landlord-education programs.
But now, reports of bedbug infestations are showing up in homes and hotels from Ohio to Texas.
Michael Raupp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland, runs a website called Bug of the Week. And this week's star is the bedbug.
Michael Raupp, welcome to the program.
Dr. MICHAEL RAUPP (Entomologist, University of Maryland): Audie, it's a pleasure to be here today.
CORNISH: So how worried should I be? How widespread is this in the U.S.?
Dr. RAUPP: You should be worried, Audie, very...
CORNISH: That's not what you're supposed to say.
Dr. RAUPP: ...very, very worried. They really have become widespread almost in any kind of establishment where people live and sleep, throughout both small and large cities.
CORNISH: So where there is upholstery, there could be bedbugs.
Dr. RAUPP: Well, it's not only where there's upholstery, but where the food is - that intimate association between bedbugs and sleeping human beings. Now the problem is, as people go about their daily activities of going to an office or going to a movie theater, for that matter, the probability that they are going to bring bedbugs along with them increases.
So the great upswing we're seeing now in places without beds, I think we can attribute directly to the fact that so many dwellings are now infested. And as people move about, they are unwittingly carrying bedbugs with them.
CORNISH: So why is this happening now because, frankly, I think I associate bedbugs with sort of another era.
Dr. RAUPP: You really do. Prior to the DDT era and the time of our synthetic organic pesticides, bedbugs were commonplace. I've spoken with my wonderful mother, who tells stories about moving to apartments and one of the first things they would do is take the wire-spring mattresses outside, soak them in kerosene, and light them on fire to kill the bedbugs.
But we're now in an era when people travel everywhere. They just don't go to major cities like London or Paris. We have people going to Second World countries and Third World countries where, frankly, bedbugs are commonplace. And these guys are real troopers. They're hitchhikers and stowaways.
And bedbugs don't discriminate. This is not a matter of poor sanitation or poor housekeeping or uncleanliness. Hey, bedbugs are for everybody right now. Anybody can have...
(Soundbite of laughter)
CORNISH: Right. But at the same time, I mean, isn't there still a stigma, I guess, about bedbugs - that if you get them, you don't really want to tell anybody that you got them.
Dr. RAUPP: And this really is part of the problem. We need to have a candid and frank dialogue about bedbugs. We can't have situations any longer where people are afraid to talk to a landlord or a property manager because of repercussions. And we can't have landlords and property managers saying things like, oh, you brought the bedbugs in.
CORNISH: Give us a sense of what a bedbug infestation is like?
Dr. RAUPP: Well, it's really quite disagreeable, to tell you the truth, especially in advance stages. One of the first symptoms is unusual bites. And these bites aren't going to be on your ankles, where the mosquitoes usually bite you, or on your arms. These could be on your neck. They could be on the shoulders. They could be down on your legs somewhere -
CORNISH: Okay, too much.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CORNISH: You don't have to give us too much detail.
Dr. RAUPP: Okay. Well, they could be anywhere on your body, suffice to say. And these are going to be small, itchy, red welts, okay? Now, you've got to take action. One of the things I'm considering right away is to probably call in a professional. As I said, this is not one that you're going to want to tackle yourself.
There are going to be many things that you can do to help your pest control operator manage your bedbug infestation. They need places to hide. With great fondness, I always think of my teenagers' rooms and the collection of things under beds, on the floor, on the wall and the bookcase.
Remove as much of that clutter as possible because this is going to help you find the bedbugs and treat the spaces either through vacuuming, through steaming, or through very cold refrigeration processes that can either thermally kill your bedbugs or help remove bedbugs and their eggs.
CORNISH: Michael Raupp is an entomologist at the University of Maryland.
Dr. Raupp, thank you so much for this fascinating and unbelievably creepy conversation.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. RAUPP: Audie, it was my pleasure to creep you out this afternoon.