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Bed bugs: A prevalent problem no one wants to talk about

No one wants to talk about bed bugs.

But these tiny pests have been around for thousands of years and are much more common than the average person may be aware. They carry a stigma of poverty and poor hygiene, but is that really the case?

The National Pest Management Association published statistics on bed bugs from their annual survey in 2018 stating that 97% of pest control professionals had treated for bed bugs in the previous year. Almost all reports came from people who did not know the pests they were fighting were bed bugs — most thought they were fleas or cockroaches.

Most bed bug complaints are made over the summer months, or during times of the year when travel increases. The bugs are found primarily in single-family homes, apartment buildings and hotels/motels. They are also commonly found in nursing homes, daycare centers, offices, college dorms, hospitals and on public transportation.

Bites are the most commonly reported sign of an infestation.

“Although some people immediately develop a skin reaction to bites, others may take two or three days before showing obvious symptoms or any symptoms at all,” the report’s summary reads, “meaning that people could be unaware of a bed bug problem until a full-blown infestation has taken root.”

Bed bugs care found most often in bed frames and couches, but can also be found on stuffed animals, wheelchairs, airplanes, school buses, purses and bedside lamps — anywhere they can take shelter in tiny crevices or unseen areas to sleep, while remaining close to a food source.

Signs of bed bugs in the home — other than seeing the actual insects — are most often small brown or black stains on bedding or other surfaces.

What are bed bugs?

They are small, flat, oval-shaped and wingless insects that feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals, like humans, bats, birds and pets. The Cimex lectularius — “couch” or “bed” bug — has been associated with humans for thousands of years.

Adult bed bugs resemble unfed ticks or small roaches, though there are many different versions. Bed bugs live six to 12 months and can survive long periods without feeding. They possess stink glands and emit an odor, especially if crushed.

Can they make you sick?

Bites from bed bugs are typically not noticed, though some do experience allergic reactions to saliva from the bites — much like mosquitoes — and can develop itchy welts or blisters. These reactions usually clear up on their own and require little treatment other than an antiseptic or antibiotic cream or lotion. No evidence exists to suggest the bites can transmit disease.

How do I get rid of them ?

Keeping the bugs out of a dwelling can be difficult, especially if residents travel frequently or have frequent guests. Bugs can also enter the home on used items, like furniture or goods purchased at a yard sale or second-hand store.

The Mississippi State University Extension Service recommends after traveling to wash all clothing from your luggage in hot water and dry on high heat, if materials permit, or skip the washer for “clean” clothes and go straight to the dryer. Seal luggage in plastic bags between uses, if possible. Purchasing a pre-owned mattress is recommended against, as well.

If bed bugs are suspected in a hotel/motel room, the management should be notified immediately. Infestations can also be reported to local or state health departments. If found in a home, over-the-counter pesticides may not be the best option. Not many insecticides are specifically labeled for bed bugs, and things can become worse by only partially treating bugs.

As for most other pest infestations, contacting a competent professional pest exterminator is likely the best option.

More bed bug facts

• One of every five Americans has had a bed bug infestation in their home or personally knows someone has encountered bed bugs at home or in a hotel.

• Those who have encountered bed bugs tend to live in urban areas and rent homes, or travel often.

• Bed bugs are found in all 50 states. Twenty percent of pest reports occur in the South, 20% in the Midwest, 19% in the West and 17% in the Northeast.

• Most Americans have misconceptions about bed bugs — that they transmit disease, that they are found mostly among lower income households or that they are only in dirty homes. Bed bugs are found in homes of families with all income levels, and are found in both unsanitary and sanitary conditions.

• Bed bugs can survive in temperatures from just above freezing to 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

• Bed bugs can draw blood for 5 to 10 minutes and can ingest seven times their own weight — the equivalent of an average-sized male human drinking 120 gallons of liquid.

Homeowners shouldn’t neglect taking care of a pest problem, worrying that a pest-control expert will consider them to have poor cleanliness habits. The experts know how difficult it is to prevent and control infestations.

Lincoln County’s extension agents are Rebecca Bates, Extension Agent IV; LaToya Denise Evans, Extension Agent III; and Jennifer Kelly Williams, Extension Agent II. Debbie Corley and Glenda Delores Kees are office associates.

For more information about MSU Extension Service or for more information about cockroaches and other pests — and tips on how to fight them — visit the Mississippi State University Extension Service website at extension.msstate.edu.