JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Today in Your Health: bedbugs. They suck your blood in the middle of the night and vanish when the sun comes up. Bedbugs are hard to find and hard to kill.

NPR's John Nielsen has more on the mysterious resurgence of these dot-sized parasites.

JOHN NIELSEN: Mayhill Fowler first noticed the bite marks on her wrists and ankles several years ago, when she was living in Brooklyn. New ones showed up almost every morning, usually in groups of three.

Ms. MAYHILL FOWLER: I found out later that that's typical. Breakfast, lunch and dinner is what they call it. And they're very small and kind of hard little bites. You know how mosquito bites can be kind of big? These are very small, and they are very itchy.

NIELSEN: After going through several tubes of anti-itch ointment, Fowler went to see her doctor.

Ms. FOWLER: She had no clue, and she said, well, maybe it is like an allergic reaction. Maybe you should change your soap.

NIELSEN: That didn't help at all. Then, late one night, Fowler saw a blood-filled bedbug crawling out of her mattress. She called the exterminators and never slept in that bed again.

Ms. FOWLER: I knew they were like feasting from that mattress. I was getting rid of that mattress. I didn't care what it cost. That's why there are credit cards.

NIELSEN: Bedbug experts say Mayhill Fowler is far from alone. Entomologist Michael Potter of the University of Kentucky puts it this way, in a spooky-sounding Internet video.

(Soundbite of a video)

Professor MICHAEL POTTER (University of Kentucky): I've been on bedbug infestations where people have been to four different dermatologists and they couldn't figure out what was wrong with them, and had never seen a bedbug. And then you get to their home and you flip over their mattress or their box spring and it looks like the Boston Massacre. I mean, there's just thousands of bedbugs underneath, and they never knew they were there.

(Soundbite of music)

NIELSEN: And for a long time, the bedbugs weren't there. In the 1950s, exterminators armed with pesticides like DDT drove these parasites out of most of the houses in the country. Then, 10 years ago, the bugs started coming back. Exterminator Richard Kramer says he found one of the first new infestations in Washington, D.C. in 1998.

Mr. RICHARD KRAMER (President, Innovative Pest Management Inc.): We discovered bedbugs down in one of the hotels downtown. And ever since then, it's been exponentially growing, and that's the best way to describe it.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

NIELSEN: Kramer runs Innovative Pest Management, a small firm based in Maryland. We talked bedbugs in his office at the end of a long day while his dog barked in the background. Kramer says he now gets thousands of calls a year from freaked-out people who've discovered bedbug infestations. He says he tells them all not to panic. Since bedbugs aren't venomous, they don't spread dangerous diseases, and they are not linked to filth or moral decay. But Kramer won't deny that they're creepy.

Mr. KRAMER: Yeah. And they live in your bed, you know. I mean, having your wife in your bed, that's one thing, or your husband in your bed - but having a bedbug in your bed?

NIELSEN: Kramer says he warns his callers that it can cost thousands to get rid of bedbug infestations. Exterminators often visit houses several times before they find all of the bugs and the eggs. And when they do, they can't skimp on the chemicals.

Mr. KRAMER: And to be effective in controlling the bugs, you pretty much - I don't want to say you have to drown them, but you have to get them good and wet with the insecticide.

NIELSEN: Kramer says popular over-the-counter bug killers like fogs, traps and baits don't work very well on bedbugs. Alternative approaches, like steaming, vacuuming and washing sheets are hit-or-miss. In his opinion, the best way to fight these bugs is to make sure they don't get into your house in the first place. When you travel, always look for brown dots on hotel sheets, for example. And don't forget to carefully examine your luggage.

Mr. KRAMER: I saw a suitcase one time in an apartment - couldn't find a bedbug on the bed, we looked at the suitcase. There had to be 200 live bugs on this person's suitcase stuffed under their bed.

NIELSEN: It's like they were catching the train.

Mr. KOWLER: Yeah, they were - they found a way to get around.

NIELSEN: That's a lesson Mayhill Fowler's mother learned the hard way after visiting Fowler's infested apartment in New York. Mom flew home to California. A few weeks later, she found some brown dots on her mattress.

Ms. FOWLER: She called me and was, like, oh, my God, we have the bugs, you know. What do we do? What do we need to do? What do we need to do? And she definitely traced it. She was like, well, you know, I put my suitcase up against your bed.

NIELSEN: Fowler and her mother both got rid of their infestations. But not long afterward, her sister called to say that she was feeling itchy.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: To find out how to keep those creepy crawlers out of your bed, go to npr.org/yourhealth.

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