Bed bugs tend to get a reaction on par with cockroaches and ticks: the sudden, inexplicable urge to reach for a flamethrower.
They’re more than just pests. They can cause serious psychological distress, especially because most people don’t understand how infestations occur.
How do you get bed bugs in the first place? It’s not karmic retribution or a curse. Here’s how bed bugs spread and what you can do to keep your home pest-free.
What Are Bed Bugs?
In order to understand how you get a bed bug infestation (and how to avoid it), you first have to understand what bed bugs are.
Aside from being the stuff of your actual nightmares, bed bugs are flat, oval, reddish-brown insects about the size and shape of an apple seed. They don’t have wings and they don’t jump, exactly, but they’re master travelers. They’re also quite adaptable, living anywhere humans live.
They’re also the ninjas of the bug world–at least, it can feel that way. They’re experts at finding hiding places, and while they prefer to take up residence near their food source, they’ll hide anywhere they can find if your bed bug infestation is extreme.
The Difference Between a Cockroach and a Bed Bug
With that in mind, let’s talk about the difference between a bed bug and a cockroach. Although both critters inspire the sudden urge to grab a hammer or flamethrower, there’s a critical difference between them that helps you understand what attracts them.
Cockroaches are equal opportunity offenders. Like mice, they’ll eat just about anything they can find–crumbs on the floor, decaying food in the garbage, scraps left on the table, packaged food in your pantry.
Because of this, cockroaches are attracted by grime and unsanitary conditions. For a cockroach, unsanitary means readily available food.
This concept of filth and bugs has transferred into the popular conception of bed bugs, but bed bugs are much pickier than cockroaches. In fact, they only eat one thing: blood.
Unlike cockroaches, bed bugs are parasites. They can only survive by sucking blood from warm-blooded mammals, like humans and in rare cases dogs or cats.
Cockroaches are like tanks–you can smash them with a hammer and they might still crawl away. But bed bugs are much less durable than cockroaches. They’re actually rather easy to crush.
Because of this, bed bugs prefer to feed when their host is asleep since this prevents the host from crushing them when they feel the bite.
Where Do Bed Bugs Live?
Because bed bugs prefer to bite a sleeping host, they tend to live anywhere near a sleeping host. This is why bed bugs have their name. To a bed bug, mattresses and headboards are a nightly buffet table.
However, as we said, bed bugs are quite adaptable and (beyond their food) not that picky. You can find them hiding just about anywhere humans frequent.
Where Are They Commonly Found?
The good news for bed bugs is that human habitats are perfect for them to hide.
As such, bed bugs will hide anywhere they can find warm-blooded mammals. This often means your home, but it can also include:
- Buses and bus stops
- Cruise liners
- Schools, colleges, and universities
- Police stations
This is by no means a comprehensive list. Remember, bed bugs aren’t picky. In smaller infestations they prefer to come out at night, and a sleeping host makes their meal easier to access, but they’ll hide out anywhere they stand a chance of finding a meal.
They can also live for quite a while without a meal if necessary. They prefer to eat more often, but they can live months at room temperature without a meal. However, because they’re cold-blooded, their metabolism slows down when temperatures go down, which means they can last for much longer without feeding on a host.
How Do You Get Bed Bugs in the First Place?
Now that you’ve been properly informed about these pests, you’re probably wondering: how do you actually get bed bugs and how do these little monsters spread?
They crawl about a meter per minute, but they don’t have wings, so they can’t fly (unless, apparently, you put a blow dryer behind them. Then they fly about 1.2 meters).
You don’t get bed bugs because your house is dirty. Nor do you get them based on your neighborhood, bed bugs don’t differentiate between a low-income apartment complex and a high-end suburb. You also don’t get bed bugs from an act of God, karmic retribution for sins in a past life, or any other mystical, behind-the-scenes catastrophe.
Bed bugs spread because of their expert hitchhiking skills. An infestation can occur almost anywhere, but it spreads because bed bugs hitchhike into a new location with a fresh host. Once they arrive, they find new hiding places and make themselves at home.
Here are a few common places where most people acquire a bed bug infestation.
Home Away From Home
Temporary lodgings like hotels, motels, and your favorite vacation rental are an ideal breeding ground for bed bugs.
This is for one simple reason: the lodgings are temporary. There’s a lot of people, but there’s also an extremely high turnover, which means a lot of people are occupying living quarters that were occupied by someone else not too long ago.
This means there are constant opportunities for bed bugs to find their way into the hotel. You only need one mature female to find her way into the room and start laying eggs. At that point, the circle of life is in full effect and bed bugs are breeding left and right.
Once they’re established, bed bugs quickly spread to other areas in the hotel in search of new hosts. Since they’re good at hiding and master travelers, they can quickly travel between rooms, in the walls, through the pipes, even tagging along with the cleaning crew.
Bed bugs often ride along with travelers in luggage, purses, and clothing. If they arrived at the hotel that way, they can certainly arrive at your home using the same method.
So, before you book that trip…make sure to read the hotel reviews.
The High Price of “Free” Furniture
Remember when your parents tried to teach you that nothing in life is free? That extends to “free” furniture, especially where bed bugs are concerned.
If you’re tempted by that beautiful chair sitting on the neighbor’s curb, maybe think twice before you snag it. And maybe get it treated for bugs, just in case.
You see, bed bugs are equal opportunity hitchhikers. If they’re already hiding in a piece of furniture, they may still be hiding in it when that furniture moves between homes. This is why discarded furniture is such a common culprit in bed bug infestations.
Mattresses are popular bed bug transportation because, well, humans sleep on them but bed bugs are equally happy to hide in couches, chairs, and any other furniture used by humans. Even wooden furniture isn’t free of risk.
Used Clothes Aren’t Free Either
Bed bugs will hide anywhere they can access humans. Since they often travel between locations by hitchhiking on clothing, your clothes are always fair game.
If you love thrift shopping, it might be time to take a closer look at your purchases.
Unfortunately, even if a clothing item has been cleaned, you just don’t know where it’s been. Any pre-owned clothing, whether you grab it from a thrift store, get a donation, or even borrow from a friend, is a risk of spreading bugs.
Even new clothes can be carriers for bed bugs if the store itself has an infestation. In fact, several major retailers in New York had to temporarily close their stores to deal with bed bug infestations.
If you bring an item of clothing into your home, new or old, it should always be washed in hot water and dried. If it’s white, always run it with bleach. Bed bugs can’t survive at high temperatures, so this may kill the stragglers.
The same treatment should be applied to fabric non-clothing items, such as used stuffed animals, pillows, and sheets. A very hot dryer is your best friend anytime you introduce these items into your house.
Don’t Count on Non-Fabric Items
That said, if you’re now terrified of ever bringing fabric items into your house again, non-fabric items aren’t safe from bed bugs either.
That book you got from a street vendor? Fair game.
That coffee maker you picked out from the store? Fair game.
Yes, even your alarm clock is fair game.
Any item that was stored in a box, home, or area infested with bed bugs is fair game. Bed bugs don’t care how they get to their host, so long as they can find one. They’re willing to be creative to find new hosts.
Keeping Up With the Joneses
It’s not a fun thought, but you could do everything right and still find yourself with an infestation. How?
Your dumpster-diving neighbor. Even a neighbor that isn’t cautious about bed bug prevention can put the block at risk. All it takes is one person picking up a “practically new” item to introduce a bed bug problem.
Remember, it only takes one sexually mature female to create a bed bug breeding ground.
They’re also experts at migration, which means shared housing like apartments, condominiums, and dorms are at an especially high risk of a widespread infestation. After all, a lot of people come and go, and all those people are exposed to unique environments. You never know when one person has bad luck.
Bed bugs are good at traveling through the walls and vents, but they can also do it the good old fashioned way: crawling under the door.
Spending Time in Bed Bug Infested Areas
Ultimately, many bed bug infestations can be boiled down to the same thing: spending time in bed bug-infested areas.
Bed bugs don’t like to traffic on their hosts, but they’re also willing to go anywhere humans congregate. This means that any public space is fair game. The more people there are, the more chances a bed bug has to find its next meal.
It can be as simple as placing your jacket next to someone who unwittingly carried a bed bug along. It doesn’t take much for bed bugs to spread.
How to Prevent Getting Bed Bugs
In short, it’s remarkably easy to get bed bugs. All you need is proximity and bad luck.
However, bed bug prevention is not about locking yourself in a sterile room and never interacting with other human beings. Plenty of people will never experience bed bug infestations, even if they don’t pay close attention.
That said, if you know you live in an area with bed bug issues, you’ve had bed bugs in the past, or you just want to make sure you never discover bloodsucking roommates, there are ways to help protect yourself and your home from an infestation.
Yes, even if you live near someone who has a bed bug problem, and even if you travel often. The key is taking steps to prevent surprises.
Clean, Clean, and Clean Some More
The first step is to clean. And clean. And clean a bit more.
Bed bugs aren’t like cockroaches. Cockroaches are attracted to filth because it means they’re more likely to find food. Bed bugs don’t care about filth, they care about blood. The relative cleanliness (or lack thereof) in your house is not what attracts bed bugs.
However, an unclean house does provide a critical advantage to bed bugs. Bed bugs are great at hiding, so if your house is dirty, they have even more places to hide than they would have otherwise found.
A clean house doesn’t spook bed bugs away, but it does make it easier for you to spot the warning signs of an infestation. Plus, if you’re already in the habit of keeping your house clean, you’re more likely to take other sanitation steps that would prevent an infestation.
Vacuum Frequently (Including the Furniture)
To that end, your cleaning should include a frequent vacuuming regimen.
Bed bugs are small (the size of an apple seed). This makes them perfectly adapted to hiding in tiny crevices, such as:
- Door and window frames
- Mattress upholstery
- Furniture upholstery
Vacuuming helps remove any bed bugs that might be hiding in crevices you can’t see. Always take the time to vacuum every nook and cranny, including your furniture!
Protect Your Furniture
Because bed bugs are equally willing to hide in furniture, you have to take steps to eliminate effective hiding places.
Beds are the best place to start, especially mattresses. Even new mattresses should use a bed bug mattress cover (it won’t prevent bugs from hiding there if they’re already in the mattress, but it does make it much harder for them to venture in and out). Look for a cover that’s durable and resistant to tearing.
You can even get box spring encasements and pillow covers. These will prevent bed bugs from being able to access these items as a hiding place.
If you bring any new furniture into your home, always check the cracks and crevices for any signs of bed bugs. Dead bugs are an obvious sign, but be on the lookout for bed bug eggs and shed skins. If you notice any rust-colored dots on furniture, these could be a spot where a bug was crushed or a spot where there used to be bed bug excrement.
Do Your Laundry and Check Religiously
Bed bugs have been known to hide and travel on clothing. The good news about clothing is that it’s easier to clean than furniture.
Before any clothing enters your home, make sure to give it a quick check, especially if you know you’ve been in an area with bed bugs.
Even if clothes don’t show any apparent signs of infestation, you should still wash them regularly in hot water. If you can, use bleach. This will help kill any bed bugs that might be lingering there. Any new items should always be washed before they are worn or introduced to the rest of your clothes.
In addition, try not to leave clothes lying around on the floor, the furniture, or anywhere else they don’t belong. Again, this won’t attract bed bugs, but it provides them an easy hiding place.
Travel With Care
Travel is one of the most common ways that people are introduced to bed bugs and carry a tagalong back to their homes. You can’t control what other people do when they travel, but you can take steps to protect yourself when you’re away from home.
Before you even bring your luggage in the room, you should inspect it first. You can do this with a critical eye, but a flashlight can help you see in crevices.
Always look around the mattress, box springs, and headboard for any signs of bed bugs. From there, check any upholstered furniture and wood furniture. Pay extra attention to the seams.
Odds are, you won’t notice anything. But it helps to have peace of mind before you sleep in a hotel room.
If you notice anything that looks questionable, take a photo and ask for a different room. You can also put specimens in a container for positive identification, but you shouldn’t stay in a room if you’re concerned that it may have bugs. It’s not worth the risk.
Know If You’ve Got a Bed Bug Problem
Prevention is the single best thing you can do to keep bed bugs at bay, but if you do have an infestation, it’s important to know how to recognize it and put an end to it before the bugs get out of hand.
The most obvious sign of bed bugs is their bites, which look a lot like mosquito bites. They tend to show up in clusters or in a line on exposed skin. However, bed bugs inject a minor anesthetic when they bite so their host won’t feel it, and not everyone reacts to bed bug bites.
The most reliable signs are molted exoskeletons, bed bug eggs, rust-colored spots from bed bug feces, or a sweet, musty odor.
If you do see signs of an infestation, the most important thing to remember is not to panic.
Bed bugs, like ticks and cockroaches, make people react with immediate disgust and terror. That makes you do irrational things, like contemplate burning all of your furniture, throwing out everything you own, or filling your home with an unhealthy amount of insecticides.
If you panic and try to scramble into a solution, you could actually make the situation worse (or spread the infestation to someone else). Bed bug infestations can be contained and eliminated, but it’s harder if you make foolish mistakes.
Need Help With Bed Bugs? No Worries!
How do you get bed bugs in the first place? Most of the time, it’s a combination of two things: bad luck and poor preventative measures.
Fortunately, even the most severe infestations can be eradicated.
We’re bed bug experts who know how to get every last bug out of your home without any harsh chemicals. If you need to speak with us about extermination options, click here to get in touch.