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Bedbugs Q&A: Get Rid of Bedbugs, Bedbugs Bites, Signs, and More

WebMD readers get answers to their questions about bedbugs.

By Matt McMillen
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Sept. 24, 2010 -- Bedbugs are like vampires. They suck your blood, and they are all the rage right now.

Unfortunately, the nasty little critters aren't fictional creatures out of the Dracula or Twilight sagas. They are all too real. And they're not afraid of garlic.

Missy Henriksen, a spokeswoman for the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), answers questions from the WebMD audience about how to spot bedbugs, how to get rid of them (no, you don't need tiny wooden stakes), and how to prevent them from invading your space in the first place.

What exactly are bedbugs and how do you know if you have them?

Bedbugs are bloodsuckers that feed mostly on humans. It's a myth that they are too small to see. In fact, says Henriksen, they look like apple seeds or lentils. The first sign that you have a problem? You'll wake up to find itchy welts on your skin, frequently in groups of three -- one each to indicate your guest's breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You might also spot pepper flake-like particles that Henriksen delicately calls bedbug dirt.

Where are these things prevalent?

Bedbugs are most commonly found in and around your bed: your mattress, where the box spring and mattress connect, and in the dust ruffle that circles the bottom of your bed. But they can also be found in the walls, in picture frames, and other pieces of furniture.

Are bedbugs attracted to the fibers or the material used to make mattresses?

No. These night feeders are attracted to carbon dioxide, which we expel with every breath.

Are bedbugs attracted to dirty people?

No. Bedbugs, says Henriksen, are equal opportunity biters -- they'll go after you whether you are dirty or clean.

Can a person prevent them by keeping a clean place?

Again, no. “You'll find them in budget motels as well as five-star resorts,” Henriksen says. But you can make it easier to get rid of them if you reduce clutter. That way, they have fewer places to hide when the pest pros show up.

If caught early, could one take steps to prevent them from multiplying? [Such as] vacuuming, throwing away items they may have laid their eggs in, and putting all your personal items (such as books, pics) in a freezer?

No. Although you may be able to spot and kill a bed bug or two, that doesn't get at the root problem, which is the infestation itself. Henriksen says that professionals consider bedbugs the single most difficult pest to eliminate. “It's not a do-it-yourself pest.”

Are there any diseases associated with bedbugs or are they just an annoyance?

The good news is that bedbugs do not transmit diseases. However, Henriksen says, they can keep you from getting a good night's sleep, which, over time, is bad for your health. Anxiety is not an uncommon consequence of sharing your bed with loads of bugs.

Do bedbugs cause any disease apart from anemia?

Again, bedbugs do not spread disease, and there is little evidence that they can cause anemia, a blood disorder in which you don't have enough red blood cells to carry the oxygen required by your body. A 2009 case study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal discussed one possible case in a 60-year-old man who had been bitten hundreds of times. The authors were able to find only one other case in the medical literature, and that was dated 1962.

Does getting a plastic cover for your mattress help?

A plastic cover will keep bedbugs out of your mattress (or trap them inside if they are already there), Henriksen says. However, bedbugs hide in all sorts of places, and there's no piece of plastic that can cover everything.

I know that ants and moths tend to dislike cinnamon and orange oil. Do bedbugs have any aversions?

No, Henriksen says. The anti-pest industry is always testing new products, but they haven't come up with anything yet.

Many times, it is impossible to avoid them (e.g. in travel or when you accompany a patient in the hospital). I would like to know how one can protect oneself at an entirely new place.

Be vigilant, Henriksen says. If you are in a hotel, check the bed before you go to sleep. And when you return home, wash everything in hot water. Bedbugs can't survive temperatures above 113 degrees Fahrenheit. As for hospitals, you're right. They are not necessarily bedbug-free zones. Henriksen says that 12% of NPMA pros treated hospitals last year.

If our home is now free of the bedbugs, how could they get into our bed in the first place? Do they come with us or things we brought from outside?

Your coworker, the person sitting next to you at the movies, that secondhand sofa you just bought -- all might be carrying bedbugs. They're real hitchhikers. "But we don't want anybody to be paranoid,” Henriksen says.

Once the apartment is fumigated and everything is washed, sealed in plastic bags, what else can I do to prevent them from coming back? How do I make sure that any eggs that were not killed by the exterminator that hatch are killed before they can reproduce and re-infect?

Other than being cautious about what you bring into the house, there's not much that you can do. Henriksen says that most pest professionals will schedule more than one treatment in order to be as thorough as possible, so hopefully those eggs you are worried about won't hatch.

What is the best way to rid yourself of these nasty little creatures?

Call a pro.

How to get rid of them in the quickest possible time and the easiest way possible?

Getting rid of bedbugs is neither quick nor easy. The better question is, what is the most thorough way to get rid of them. Again, Henriksen recommends working with a professional. Expect to do a tremendous amount of laundry and sealing things in bags prior to treatment.

In a tropical country like the Philippines, they're almost everywhere! How can we get rid of them? We live in a city, in a condo.

Henriksen says that climate is less of a factor than crowding. Bedbug infestations are more common in big cities, especially in densely populated neighborhoods.

Why don't they come up with something to slather on your body or dust on the sheets that will kill them and neutralize their eggs? Like a fake body, heated, with a sticky skin... something like a huge fly paper covered, mechanical, moving, warm bedbug catcher.

Unfortunately, there's no effective repellant for bedbugs. Even if there were, it wouldn't get rid of them. As for dusting, Henriksen says you will want to be careful what you dust your sheets with. After all, you have to sleep on them.

SOURCES: Missy Henriksen, spokeswoman, National Pest Management Association.CDC: “Joint Statement on Bed Bug Control in the United States from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).”Pritchard, J. Canadian Medical Association Journal, Sept. 1, 2009; vol 18: pp 287-288.

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