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Bed Bugs

Bed bugs are parasites that preferentially feed on humans. If people aren't available, they instead will feed on other warm-blooded animals, including birds, rodents, bats, and pets. Bed bugs and their relatives have evolved as nest parasites. Certain kinds inhabit bird nests and bat roosts and await the return of their hosts; others have adapted well to living in the ‘nests’ (homes) of people. Bed bugs and their relatives occur nearly worldwide. Bed bugs can infest airplanes, ships, trains, and buses. Bed bugs are most frequently found in dwellings with a high rate of occupant turnover, such as hotels, motels, hostels, dormitories, shelters, apartment complexes, tenements, and prisons. Such infestations usually are not a reflection of poor hygiene or bad housekeeping.

Bed bugs have been documented as pests since the 17th century. They were introduced into our country by the early colonists. Bed bugs were common in the United States prior to World War II, after which time widespread use of synthetic insecticides such as DDT greatly reduced their numbers. Improvements in household and personal cleanliness as well as increased regulation of the used furniture market also likely contributed to their reduced pest status.

In the past decade, bed bugs have begun making a comeback across the United States. The widespread use of baits rather than insecticide sprays for ant and cockroach control is a factor that has been implicated in their return. They are most abundant in rooms where people sleep, and they generally hide nearest the bed or other furniture used for sleeping. Bed bugs are most active in the middle of the night, but when hungry, they will venture out during the day to seek a host.

Hatchling bed bugs are about the size of a poppy seed, and adults are about 1/4 of an inch in length. From above they are oval in shape, but are flattened from top to bottom.

A photo of a bed bug - it looks like a brown, flattened beetle.

Common name: Bed Bug, Tropical Bed Bug

Scientific name: Cimex Lectularius, Cimex Hemipterus

Their color ranges from nearly white (just after molting) or a light tan to a deep brown or burnt orange. Bed bugs cannot fly. When disturbed, bed bugs actively seek shelter in dark cracks and crevices. Cast skins of bed bugs are sometimes discovered. Although such a finding confirms that bed bugs had been present previously, it does not confirm that any continue to infest the residence. Thus, inspect carefully for live crawling bed bugs. Bed bugs have a beaklike piercing-sucking mouthpart system. The adults have small, stubby, nonfunctional wing pads. Eggs are white and about 1/32 inch long.

Bed bugs superficially resemble a number of closely related insects (family Cimicidae), such as bat bugs (Cimex adjunctus), chimney swift bugs (Cimexopsis spp.), and swallow bugs (Oeciacus spp.). A microscope is needed to examine the insect for distinguishing characteristics, which often requires the skills of an entomologist.

Female bed bugs lay from one to twelve eggs per day, and the eggs are deposited on rough surfaces or in cracks and crevices. The eggs are coated with a sticky substance so they adhere to the substrate. Eggs hatch in 6 to 17 days, and nymphs can immediately begin to feed. They require a blood meal in order to molt. Bed bugs reach maturity after five molts. Developmental time (egg to adult) is affected by temperature and takes about 21 days at 86° F to 120 days at 65° F. The nymphal period is greatly prolonged when food is scarce. Nymphs and adults can live for several months without food. The adult's lifespan may encompass 12-18 months. Three or more generations can occur each year.

Bed bugs seek out people and animals, generally at night, while these hosts are asleep, and painlessly sip a few drops of blood. While feeding, they inject a tiny amount of their saliva into the skin. Repeated exposures to bed bug bites during a period of several weeks or more causes people to become sensitized to the saliva of these bugs; additional bites may then result in mild to intense allergic responses. The skin lesion produced by the bite of a bed bug resembles those caused by many other kinds of blood feeding insects, such as mosquitoes and fleas. The offending insect, therefore, can rarely be identified by the appearance of the bites. A physician should be consulted to rule out other causes for the lesions and to offer treatment, as needed. The affected person should resist the urge to scratch the bites, as this may intensify the irritation and itching, and may lead to secondary infection. Physicians often treat patients with antihistamines and corticosteroids to reduce allergic reactions and inflammation. Bed bugs are not known to transmit any infectious agents.

Because bed bugs readily hide in small crevices, they may   accompany (as stowaways) luggage, furniture, clothing, pillows, boxes, and other such objects when these are moved between apartments, homes and hotels. Used furniture, particularly bed frames and mattresses, are of greatest risk of harboring bed bugs and their eggs. Bed bugs can wander between adjoining apartments through voids in walls and holes though which wires and pipes pass.

Dark, dotted tell-tale spots on a mattress

Bed bugs do not have nests like ants or bees, but do tend to congregate in habitual hiding places. Characteristically these areas are marked by dark spotting and staining, which is the dried excrement of the bugs (shown left). Also present will be eggs and eggshells, molted skins of maturing nymphs, and the bugs themselves.

Another likely sign of bed bugs is rusty or reddish spots of blood on bed sheets, mattresses, or walls. Heavy infestations may have a musty or "buggy" smell, but the odor is seldom apparent and should not be relied upon for detection.

Solving the Bed Bug Problem:

  • Reduce clutter to limit hiding places for bed bugs.
  • Thoroughly clean the infested rooms as well as others in the residence. Scrub infested surfaces with a stiff brush to dislodge eggs, and use a powerful vacuum to remove bed bugs from cracks and crevices. Dismantling bed frames will expose additional bug hiding sites. Remove drawers from desks and dressers and turn furniture over, if possible, to inspect and clean all hiding spots.
  • Mattresses and box springs can be permanently encased within special mattress bags. Once they are installed, inspect the bags to ensure they are undamaged; if any holes or tears are found, seal these completely with permanent tape. Any bugs trapped within these sealed bags will eventually die.
  • To prevent bed bugs from crawling onto a bed, pull the bed frame away from the wall, tuck sheets and blankets so they won’t contact the floor, and place the frame legs into dishes or cups of mineral oil.
  • Caulk and seal all holes where pipes and wires penetrate walls and floor, and fill cracks around baseboards and cove moldings to further reduce harborages.
A photo of bed bugs under a carpet.  It shows small white eggs, small brown nymphs and larger adult bede bugs.
Bed bugs often reside along baseboards. Photo shows eggs, nymphs, and adults beneath carpet edge.
Bed bugs underneath a nightstand, appearing a little brown spots.
Photo shows bed bugs hidden beside a recessed screw under a nightstand
  • Bedbugs also succumb to cold temperatures below 32° F, but the chilling period must be maintained for at least two weeks. Attempts to rid an entire home or apartment of bed bugs by raising or lowering the thermostat will be entirely unsuccessful. Most housecleaning measures are of little benefit in bed bug management. Site-specific vacuuming, however, can help remove some of the bugs before treatment with insecticides. Bed bugs (especially the eggs) can be difficult to dislodge. Optimum results will be achieved by moving and scraping the end of the suction wand along infested areas such as seams, tufts and edges of bedding, and the perimeter edge of wall-to-wall carpets. Afterward, dispose of the vacuum contents in a sealed trash bag. Steam cleaning of carpets may be helpful for killing bugs and eggs that vacuuming may have missed. Because bed bugs and other pests may spread through cracks and holes in the walls, ceilings and floors, it is wise to inspect adjoining apartments on the same floor as well as those directly above and below.
  • Don’t panic. Although bed bugs can be annoying, they can be battled safely and successfully if you adopt a well-considered strategy.
  • Do not apply pesticides unless you fully understand what you are applying and the risks involved. You are legally liable if you misapply a pesticide, or apply it without a license to the property of another (including common spaces in apartment buildings). Generally, landlords, owners and building managers cannot legally apply pesticides. They should, instead, hire a licensed pest control operator to confirm the infestation and to develop an integrated pest management plan.
  • Do not dispose of furniture that is useful. Infested furniture can be cleaned and treated. Placing infested furniture (particularly mattresses) into common areas or on the street may simply help spread bed bugs to the homes of other people. Infested furniture intended for disposal should be defaced to make it less attractive to other people. Officials in some municipalities affix to potentially infested furniture a label to warn of bed bugs. To reduce opportunities of infested furniture re-entering their building, building managers should ensure that any disposed furniture is locked within a dumpster or immediately carted away to a landfill or waste facility. Do NOT apply any insecticide or pesticide to mattresses or to surfaces that would be in direct contact with a person, unless the label instructions specifically state that the product can be applied in that manner. Some products can be harmful to people and pets. READ and UNDERSTAND the label.

Insecticide formulations used to treat bed bug infestations consist mainly of the following:

Insecticidal dusts abrade the insect’s outer waxy coat and cause the bugs to dry out quickly. Some consist of a finely ground glass or silica powder. These dry dusts may be applied in cracks and crevices, as well as within the hollow interior of a tubular bed frame. Some dust formulations include another kind of insecticide.

Contact insecticides are those that kill the bugs shortly after they come into direct contact with the product or its residue. These mainly consist of one or more kinds of pyrethroids (synthetic analogs of the extract of chrysanthemum flowers). These products tend to rapidly ‘knock down’ bugs that wander over or otherwise contact the insecticide. Because pyrethroids can be irritating and repellent to many insects, bed bugs may avoid treated surfaces. A different kind of contact insecticide, chlorfenapyr, is now available in a product available to pest control operators. This product is non-repellent and effective for a longer period.

Insect Growth Regulators (IGR) affect the development and reproduction of insects. Although these products can be quite effective in reducing the population of the pests, they do not kill bugs quickly. Thus, pest control operators often use these products as a supplement to other kinds of insecticides.

Finally, a common question: "How do I get bed bugs out of clothes that have been in a bedroom where they are?" This is actually easier than you think - all you have to do is run them through a washer and dryer. A lot of people think it has to be more complicated, but that's not the case - even about five minutes in most dryers is enough to kill both the adults and the developing bedbugs (larva, nymphs, eggs). The reason they die off is because of the heat - they just can't survive the temperatures (up to 175 degrees) of most washers and driers.

What if you have something you can't put in a washing machine (stuffed animals, rugs, shoes, etc.)? If you can put it into a dryer, that will work, and it’s very effective. Dry cleaning will also work. One other option is to put the item in a plastic bag and place it in the freezer for about a week. It takes much longer to kill them using cold than heat, so this method is not ideal. But if you absolutely can't wash it and it won't be damaged by cold, then you can put an item in the freezer and they will die off eventually.

A compilation of Fact Sheets from: Richard Pollack, Ph.D. (Laboratory of Public Health Entomology Harvard School of Public Health); Gary Alpert, Ph.D.(Environmental Health & Safety Harvard University); Susan C. Jones, Ph.D., (Assistant Professor of Entomology Ohio State University) and Michael F. Potter, Extension Entomologist (University of Kentucky College of Agriculture)