Bed bugs go 'chomp' in the night

Originally Published: January 11, 2002 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: May 28, 2014
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Dear Alice,

For the past few nights, I've been getting bug bites while I'm asleep in my bed. The bites are small, circular, and slightly raised, also extremely itchy. I live in an apartment by myself, with no pets, although there is a dog that lives in the building, two floors above me. I live in a studio on the bottom floor of this house. My compact kitchen is located very near my bed. I'm wondering about the cause of these bites. Bed bugs? Fleas? I'm also looking for ways to stop this. Insecticides? Changing my diet to make me less yummy?

Dear Reader,

Sounds like your bedmates are keeping you from sleeping tight! Despite their name, bed bugs may be found in upholstered furniture and even carpets and wall crevices. Most likely the cause of your nighttime nibbles (since fleas generally prefer pets to their owners), bed bugs often infest places where occupancy is constantly changing such as:

  • Hotels
  • Dormitories
  • Apartment buildings
  • Movie theatres
  • Hospitals

Although they may seem like the stuff of childhood nightmares, bed bugs are in fact nocturnal parasites that love to dine on sleeping humans. Therefore, no matter your diet, if you've got blood, they would find you delectable. These tiny pests (adults are about 1/4 of an inch long and resemble apple seeds) hide in nooks and crannies and come out late at night to gorge themselves. Not everyone who has been bitten may have visible bites, but those who do may have such telltale signs as small welts with dark red centers — similar to mosquito or flea bites. Although the bites are irksome and in large numbers may produce rashes, significant discomfort, and potentially an allergic reaction in some, bed bugs aren't known to transmit any diseases to people; they're considered more of a nuisance than a serious health threat. Seeing a health care provider, especially if your bug bites cause great distress (nausea, swelling of the face, lips, or throat, difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, dizziness, fainting, or hives), may clarify the type of bites as well as proper next steps.

Found in even the cleanest of homes, bed bugs live just about anywhere and spread easily. If you see any of the following signs, these pests may have taken up residence with you:

  • Tiny spots of blood on sheets or bedding (the result of squishing a sated bed bug)
  • Brownish stains (from feces) around hiding places, including the bed frame, mattress cover, or cracks in doors, window frames, or walls around the bed
  • Brown exoskeletons that bed bugs molt every two months during their approximately ten month lifespan

If you suspect that you may have bed bugs, the best way to get rid of the little buggers may be to call an exterminator. If you decide to try the do-it-yourself approach, some suggestions (though infestations are difficult to control without professional help) include:

  • Start by washing/drying all of your bedding in hot water or a high-heat dryer (120ºF or higher).
  • Steam clean any non-washable furniture or carpeting.
  • Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum (especially crevices in and around baseboards and bed frames).
  • Expose infested bedding and other fabric items to extreme heat (i.e., spin them for at least 20 minutes on a high-heat dryer) or cold (i.e., store them in a freezer) for a few days.
  • Put mattresses/box springs in approved, specially designed zippered cases for at least a year until all bed bugs have died.

For those looking to prevent an infestation, a few tips include:

  • When traveling, be vigilant in checking hotel furniture (as well as your luggage when you're checking out) for signs of bed bugs.
  • Thoroughly inspect and/or steam clean any used furniture you bring into your home.
  • Avoid places that are known to have infestations (since bed bugs may hitch a ride on your clothing).
  • Reduce clutter that could allow more hiding spaces for bed bugs.

Insecticides approved for bed bugs may help, but try to take precautions when using chemicals especially near beds. This may pose health hazards for children or those with breathing problems. Chemical treatment, often the most surefire way to eradicate bed bugs, may best be left to professionals.

With a combination of precautionary measures, and chemical and non-chemical treatment, you ought to be bite free. Sleep tight, and... well, you know the rest.

Alice