An Overview of Bedbugs

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Bedbugs have resurged worldwide and these blood-sucking insects (both the Cimex lectularius and Cimex hemipterus) are a problem in many homes and hotels. Fortunately, bedbugs aren't known to spread contagious diseases. However, it is difficult to eradicate an infestation and you will want to take steps to prevent bringing bedbugs home. Learn how to identify and treat these pests.

Symptoms

Bedbug bites often appear as small, itchy, raised red areas on exposed skin, usually a few days after the actual bite. However, some children and adults don't develop a reaction to the bites at all, even after repeated exposure.

The bites appear much as other insect bites and can be seen in these patterns:

  • A rash
  • A line of bites
  • A cluster of bites

You can develop a skin infection if you scratch the bites. Rarely, a more severe allergic reaction to the bites could produce larger welts, blisters, or anaphylaxis. Bedbugs may also trigger asthma attacks and getting too many repeated bites could lead to anemia. Anxiety, insomnia, and sleep disturbances are common due to the stress of discovering bedbugs.

Causes and Risk Factors

Bedbugs are tiny flightless insects that feed only on blood. They prefer humans but can feed on pets and farm animals. They feed at night and hide from light, especially in seams and crevices around the bed.

There is no direct link between poor sanitation and bedbug infestations. A pristinely clean living space is as vulnerable as a messy one. Usually, sleeping in a place where multiple people have slept increases your risk. You might especially suspect bedbugs if you or your child:

  • Traveled recently
  • Slept on a used mattress or sat on a used piece of furniture
  • Lives in an apartment building where bedbugs could have infested another apartment and have moved into yours
  • Lives in or recently spent time in a college dorm room
  • Are getting new unexplained bites each night
  • Actually see bedbugs hiding in the seams or crevices of a mattress or box spring, along the edge of carpeting, behind picture frames, and hiding inside recesses of furniture

Diagnosis

A diagnosis of bedbugs is made by the appearance of the bites and finding bedbugs in your home environment. The bites are often not distinguishable from other insect bites. A doctor will consider conditions including scabies, allergic rashes, staph infection, eczema, antibiotic reactions, and chickenpox.

You can identify a bedbug infestation by checking bedding, mattress seams, furniture, and wall fixtures for the bugs or their traces. Each bedbug is about the size of an apple seed, about 1/4 inch long. You will often see their droppings instead, which are tiny brown or red specks. You may also see small blood stains on sheets or mattresses when a bedbug has been crushed after feeding. Eggs about the same size as the adults might be seen in seams or cracks and you will also see their molted exoskeletons.

Treatment

Treating bedbugs includes caring for the bites and eliminating the infestation. The bites will heal naturally and nothing will speed that up. You can use over-the-counter products to relieve the itching but you may need a prescription if you develop a skin infection from scratching. Common treatments include:

  • Topical anti-itch and anti-inflammatory medications such as calamine lotion, Cortaid (cortisone) cream, and diphenhydramine cream
  • Oral antihistamines, such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine hydrochloride) or Atarax (hydroxyzine), a prescription strength antihistamine
  • Topical antiseptic or antibiotic lotion for bacterial infection or oral antibiotics

Although treating bedbug bites isn't difficult, actually getting rid of the bedbugs is another story. A professional exterminator can help. You will need to discard infested mattresses, box springs, and pillows. You can heat treat or cold treat items such as clothing by laundering or freezing. However, the room itself will need to be treated to eliminate bedbugs that can live in cracks in walls, floors, and furniture.

In order to minimize your risk, you can:

  • Buy new furniture instead of used furniture
  • Seal the cracks and crevices in sleeping areas
  • Put your mattresses inside a bug-proof cover

A Word From Verywell

It is stressful and frustrating to deal with bedbugs, however, you are far from alone in managing this problem. Keep in mind that it is no reflection on how much care you take in cleaning your home or taking precautions when traveling. Be sure to care for yourself due to the stress that can result so you don't lose too much sleep.

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