They hitch a ride in suitcases, tag along on used furniture, or crawl over from the neighbor's apartment. And once bedbugs have spent the night, they're not eager to move out. They lay low by day, then emerge at night from cracks and crevices, drawn to the heat of the blood pumping through your sleeping body.
So, how should you deal with bedbugs? They're not a health hazard, but they are a miserable nuisance. Dini Miller, an urban pest management specialist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., has some advice:
Keeping Them Out
-- When sleeping in a bed that is not your own, check for signs of bed bug feces, which will look like a cluster of small black dots. "That's digested blood," Miller says. "Like you took a fountain pen and very carefully put a whole bunch of black spots on your mattress."
-- Sometimes, you'll see the shed skins of the bugs. But live, moving bugs are the only confirmation that you still have an infestation. The disc-shaped adults are reddish brown and up to a quarter-inch long. Young bedbugs are nearly invisible.
-- Sleeping with bedbugs for one night does not mean they'll come home with you. "They use you and leave you," Miller says. "Your body heat attracts them, and as soon as they're done feeding, it repels them."
-- You are more likely to carry bedbugs home in your luggage, Miller says. "Inspect your suitcase if you think you could have been infested by bedbugs." If you find warning signs, scrub the suitcase with a stiff brush, vacuum it and launder all of your clothes. Heating bedbugs to over 120 degrees kills them, so you can try leaving a suitcase in a hot car. Freezing bedbugs for about a week also kills them.
-- If you're sure you've got an infestation (an entomologist can positively identify the pests), Miller suggests you or your landlord call a licensed pest control operator who has had significant experience with bed bugs. The exterminator will typically give you a list of steps to take, including clearing the floor in the infested room, laundering bed linens (soap and water kills the bugs), and taking apart the bed. Exterminators will then treat the infested mattress and room with pesticides.
-- Miller recommends having exterminators come three times, with visits spaced two weeks apart. The repeated treatment is needed because bed bugs are resistant to some pesticides, and eggs can survive treatment, meaning they'll hatch later.
-- If you're worried about pesticides, there are alternatives. Steam-cleaning kills bedbugs and their eggs, but it can be expensive and difficult. Other chemicals may take more time than pesticides to kill.
-- Extermination costs can run from a few hundred dollars to more than a thousand dollars, and you may still be left with bedbugs. Miller warns that "there's no one shot deal" for killing the bugs — and few new treatments are in the offing. "This is something that's getting worse," she predicts.