Hollywood doesn't need a blockbuster horror show to frighten holiday crowds; bed bugs already have America in a panic! Nationwide hysteria over Cimex lectularius, the common bed bug, has created an atmosphere of paranoia that is affecting the usually festive mood of the upcoming holidays. Fear that holiday guests might bring these pests into their home has strained the hospitality of many usually affable hosts, placing additional stress on family gatherings. Fear of picking up these tiny, blood-sucking parasites from an infected hotel room and carrying them home has caused many people to cancel holiday travel plans and forgo long-anticipated visits with relatives.
In the October 18, 2010 issue of Time magazine, humor columnist Joel Stein poked fun at the bed bug paranoia sweeping the country. Expecting holiday guests who will stay in several hotels during their cross-country trek from New York City, bed bug ground zero, Stein said his wife Cassandra “has been trying to find a way to trick my father and his wife… into being hosed down with boiling water before entering our home.”
Laughing about our fears may keep us from being overwhelmed by hysteria, but an invasion of thess difficult to eradicate pests is no laughing matter. Slightly smaller than an apple seed, adults are brownish-red, wingless, flat-bodied insects that crawl into your bed at night to feed on your blood while you sleep. While they are not known to transmit disease, their bites can cause serious allergic reactions and skin infections. Additionally, these tiny insects provoke a psychological horror that can leave victims feeling nervous, anxious and jumpy for months.
“They're creepy. They're invading your sanctuary, your bed, and suddenly you can't sleep because they're coming out of your walls, out of your box springs, to feed on you in the night,” entomologist Jeffrey White, star of the Internet series Bed Bug TV, said in the October 4 2010, issue of Time. “I've seen people fall apart emotionally because of an infestation.”
Equal opportunity pests, they are attracted solely by human blood, not refuse or poor housecleaning. You're as likely to encounter them at an expensive luxury hotel as a cheap interstate motel. New York's famed Waldorf-Astoria, hotel to the world's wealthy elite, has been sued three times in recent months by guests claiming to have been bitten by bed bugs. It is becoming nearly impossible to avoid these pests. A growing problem in hotels, apartment buildings and college dormitories for the past few years, these difficult to eradicate pests have started cropping up in office buildings, retail stores, movie theaters, schools, hospitals, subways, trains, airline baggage compartments and single-family homes. To contract them, you need only sit in a cab or stay in a hotel room recently vacated by an infected person.
The fact that they ride into homes on the clothing, luggage or possessions of their victims – or their guests — only inflames bed bug paranoia. Adept hitchhikers, they hide in the seams, folds and corners of clothing, suitcases, purses, briefcases and backpacks. The considerable stigma attached to an infestation can make it hard to broach the subject with holiday guests. Miss Manners etiquette maven Judith Martin cautions against embarrassing guests; however, a few pre- and post-visit precautions can decrease the potential risk without offending guests.
Some licensed pest control firms now offer monitoring services. Unobtrusive monitoring devices are placed where these pests are likely to travel and are later inspected. Arranging services prior to and just after the holidays can discover bed bugs before an infestation grows and spreads through your home.
The following additional steps can help minimize the risk of infestation when holiday guests visit:
• Install entomologist-approved, bite-proof encasements on mattress and box springs.
• Position beds away from the wall.
• Tuck in bed sheets and blankets so they don't touch the floor.
• Use light colored bedding for easy evidence detection.
• Place low-tech monitoring devices under bed and furniture legs.
• Provide a luggage rack or card table for guests' suitcases.
• If guests unpack their bags, store suitcases away from bedrooms.
• Provide an over-the-door hanger rack for guest use.
• Remove clutter where these pests can hide.
After guests leave, vacuum your home carefully (double-wrap vacuum bag in plastic and immediately remove to outdoor trash) and follow these laundry procedures when washing guest linens:
• Place linens in plastic bags to carry them to the laundry room to avoid spreading bed bugs or their eggs through your home.
• Place items directly into the washing machine and dispose of plastic bags in outdoor trash.
• Wash linens in the hottest water possible and dry at the hottest dryer setting; 120 degrees for a minimum of 30 minutes.
For the next few weeks, watch for telltale signs:
• Live bugs or exoskeletons along mattress seams, along carpet edges and under sofa cushions.
• Rusty-colored blood smears or black fecal dots on bed sheets, mattresses, the undersides of box springs, behind headboards, along baseboards and around heating vents.
• Mosquito-like bites, particularly after sleeping.
If, despite your best precautions, your home becomes infested, it is important to call a licensed pest control firm immediately. Early detection and fast action are critical to successful bed bug extermination. Bed bugs multiply rapidly. A single female lays 500 eggs during her six- to 12-month lifespan. Larvae hatch in four to 12 days, becoming reproductive adults in just one month. A single, pregnant bug can quickly multiply into a major infestation numbering in the thousands. However, because bed bugs tends to stay within eight feet of their food source, scheduling pest control treatment early, while bed bugs are still contained in the bedroom, can prevent an infestation from growing and spreading to other parts of your home.
These pests are becoming a fact of life in the U.S. While you shouldn't let them force you into hiding, it's prudent to be proactive and take precautions, particularly during the holiday travel season. Bed bug monitoring, preventive treatments and regular inspections by a licensed pest control professional can provide homeowners with peace of mind, ensuring that the they don't bite so you can get a good night's sleep.