Health - Don't Let the Bed Bugs Bite
Monday, August 29, 2011

Bed bugs are a growing infestation around the world. Find out how to prevent these unwanted guests -- and what to do if they show up.

The nursery rhyme is cute - the reality isn't. If the thought of bed bugs has you itching all over, you won't be happy to hear they're making a comeback. Stop thinking cheap motels and unsanitary environments - these pests are moving into five-star hotels, university residences, stores, offices, libraries, theatres, schools and just about any neighbourhood.

Squirming yet? It gets worse. Infestations are becoming so common that bed bugs could be the next worldwide pandemic, according to a report from the U.S. National Pest Management Association. Thankfully, these blood-eating insects aren't thought to carry disease - but they can be hard to control.

Didn't we get rid of this problem? Some experts blame pesticide bans for the current bed bug population boom. The last outbreak in the 1930s was tamed by the introduction of DDT after World War II. However, this toxic chemical is no longer in use and pest control companies are using less toxic ways to treat infestations - methods which don't necessarily kill bed bugs.

Then there's our love of international travel which makes it easy for bed bugs to get around. It doesn't take much to cause an infestation - a single stowaway can infest an entire room.

Regardless of the cause, this is one problem we'd rather didn't hit home. Here's what you need to know to keep the bed bugs at bay.

Warning signs

Whether it's your home or your home-away-from-home, it isn't always easy to spot a problem. Here are the warning signs to watch for:

- Bites. Different people have different reactions, but bites often appear as raised, red bumps in a series of three - "breakfast, lunch and dinner". Exposed skin is more convenient, but bed bugs will bite anywhere on the body. You won't feel the feast because their saliva contains anticoagulant and anesthetic chemicals.

- The bugs. Measuring around 1/4 inch, adult bed bugs have flat, oval shaped bodies with flat, broad heads to match. They have six legs and wings (although they can't fly), and they'll be bloated and dark red in colour after feeding. You're more likely to see them at night because they spend up to 90 per cent of their time in hiding.

- Eggs or egg casings. Look closely - these hard-to-spot white, pear-shaped eggs are roughly the size of a pinhead and appear in clusters of 10-50.

- Fecal stains. They look like tiny black spots on your mattress or sheets - like someone dotted the surface with a pen.

- Exuviae (shed skins). Bed bugs molt five times before they become adults, leaving behind evidence of their growth spurts.

What to do about them

If bed bugs move into your home, experts recommend consulting a pest management professional because pesticides can be difficult and dangerous to use, and they may not take care of the problem alone. Integrated pest management techniques - which involve deep cleaning and inspection - are also part of the plan. Regardless of whether you bring in the experts or decide to go it alone, you should:

- Vacuum the infested room. Yes, the entire room because bed bugs can hide just about anywhere - including in closets and drawers, behind picture frames, under wallpaper and inside clocks and electronics. Use the nozzle or brush attachment, and try to get all of the eggs too. When you're done, dispose of the vacuum bag right away and inspect the attachments for bed bugs or eggs.

- Thoroughly steam clean your mattress. Beware that if there are tears and holes, the bugs may migrate to places you can't reach. If you do have to throw out your mattress, dismantle or destroy it so someone else won't take it home.

- Launder your linens and any other items that can safely go in the wash, like slip covers and pillows. Use the hottest water possible - then put them in the dryer for at least 20 minutes.

- Turn on the hot or cold. For items that can't go in the wash, experts advise using heat or cold to kill them instead. Wrap items in plastic and put them outside on a hot, sunny day or freezing cold day for a few hours. If you go the cold route, make sure the temperature is below freezing and leave the item outside for longer (up to a few days, for instance).

- Get rid of clutter. Less stuff means fewer places for bed bugs to hide and breed.

- Deep clean. Depending on the severity of the infestation, you may have to do some serious cleaning.

- Be patient. Sources say it can take up to two weeks to fully get rid of the problem. You can expect to see a few bugs during this time, but you don't panic unless you see a lot.

And we know you want to, but don't scratch the bites - you could scar your skin or risk a secondary infection. Instead, treat them as you would other bug bites with an antihistamine or bite remedy. A medical professional should have a look if you have a more severe reaction.

How to prevent an infestation

The most common ways for bed bugs to get into your home include spending the night in an infested place or bringing a contaminated item into your home. In multi-dwelling residences like condos and apartments, bed bugs can travel from unit to unit via pipes and ductwork.

What can you do to help stop an infestation?

- Conduct periodic inspections. Thoroughly examine mattresses, including the seams, the bed frame, any cloth furniture, cracks in wood, etc. Because bed bugs are night time critters, it may be easier to spot them with a flashlight in a dark room.

If your son or daughter is moving in to a dormitory, teach them how to conduct inspections as well.

- Clean house. In addition to keeping surfaces free of clutter, regular cleaning and vacuuming - especially your mattress and cloth furniture - can help deter the pests.

- Be cautious bringing home used items. Carefully inspect any furniture or used items you plan to bring into your home and ask the seller if it has been checked for bed bugs. Free stuff can be tempting, but items left on the curb can be especially risky.

- Cover your mattress and pillows. There are many different types of mattress covers on the market - some of them plastic - and you can cover the zipper with duct tape for a complete seal.

- Seal the cracks. Make sure the windows and the exterior of your home are sealed up to prevent other pests like birds and bats who can host and transport the bugs. If you live in an apartment, talk to your superintendant about sealing around ducts and pipes to prevent bugs from moving next door.

- Check out your accommodations. When you travel, inspect your room and bed for signs of the pests before you settle in. If you encounter a problem, contact the person in charge so the problem can be dealt with - and you can be offered a new room.

- Keep your bags off the floor. Even if can't spot a problem, keep your luggage off the floor (use a luggage rack or dresser top) and keep your bags closed.

- Quarantine and clean. When you return from travelling, the worst thing you can do is put your suitcase on your bed to unpack. Unpack elsewhere - like your garage, if possible - and inspect your luggage. Don't mix your clothes in with your regular laundry, but wash them in hot water promptly. (If you know an item is clean and bug-free, you can pack it in zip lock bags to keep bugs from getting in.)

In addition, some experts recommend leaving pillows at home because they can be difficult to clean.

- Keep an eye on local news and health. Are bed bugs bad in your area? You may want to take extra precautions when you're out, like not setting your purse or backpack on the floor. You might not hear a lot about bed bugs because of the stigma and the threats to local businesses.

Remember, bed bugs can affect anyone, so having them isn't a comment on your cleanliness or housekeeping. If you spot any signs of infestation, don't be afraid to get help. Unfortunately, many people suffer in silence due to embarrassment.