The past 15 years have seen a dramatic resurgence of these persistent pests. They have invaded apartment buildings across Manhattan, flown on planes, and infested hotels, schools, universities, taxis, libraries (through infested books!), buses and trains, leaving a trail of itchy, though relatively harmless, welts in their path. One recent, though extremely small, Canadian study linked the bugs to the life-threatening MRSA bacteria. But experts caution that the representative sample was too small to indicate whether there was a need for concern.
"One conservative estimate puts sightings up more than 70 percent nationwide since 2007," writes Jeff Eisenberg in his new book, The Bed Bug Survival Guide. "Reported infestations in Chicago tripled between 2007 and 2008. I project by the time you are reading this at least 85 percent of all New York City buildings will have had or have a problem with bedbugs."
One theory as to this sudden rise is in the way the bugs have adapted to pesticides.
The bedbug can live without blood — its food source — for up to 18 months. "Females can lay up to four eggs a day in secluded locations; up to five to 10 a week and up to 500 in her lifetime," according to Eisenberg.
And don't think you'll be safe leaving these shores.
The Spanish government announced a "war" on these pests in 2010 after seeing a 10 percent to 20 percent rise of infestations in hotel rooms. In 2009, the Guardian reported London had seen incidents of bedbugs rise 300 percent in the last decade. In France they are called "punaises de lit" — "blood drawing pins" — and Reuters reported last fall that Paris City Hall had been "overwhelmed with calls" about infestations.
Dr. Louis Sorkin, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, says that airplanes, not equipped to check or kill or take care of bedbugs, have inadvertently helped their spread: They have been found in the overhead bins and in the luggage hold.
So what are bedbugs? And how can you prevent them from coming home with you when you travel?
1. Know what to look for
As adults, bedbugs are about the size and color of apple seeds. But a bedbug goes through five "immature" stages before it reaches full size. As an egg or emerging bedbug nymph, it can be white or so pale that it can escape detection. So the telltale signs are droppings — dark color spots from blood digestion, pale color spots from an excretory waste or the remnants of their shed outer skin.
2. Know where the bugs are
Despite their name, bedbugs don't lounge only in beds. They can nestle into bags, backpacks and overcoats, as well as in the seams of mattresses, and in the headboards of beds, in the grooves of the night table, in the cushion of the bedside chair and into the zipper of your suitcase.
"When I go to a hotel, I put my suitcase in the bathtub or bathroom," says Sorkin. "Nothing goes on the bed." Then he does a search, pulling back the bed coverings to look at the sheets, looking in the pillows and then pulling back the headboard.
Dr. Paul Tierno, a microbiologist at New York University, agrees: "Scanning the mattress ribbing, I look for bedbugs or bedbug feces and casts — when bedbugs molt, they shed their skin — I look for eggs and for anything that looks like an insect. If there is any sign, I leave that hotel. I don't even move to another room because I know the hotel is infested."
Tierno suggests putting suitcases on a coffee table, away from the walls, and spraying the suitcase a few days before traveling with an insecticide or, if you've got small children, eucalyptus oil.
Clothes should be packed in tight ziplock bags and kept there during travel. Tierno never hangs his clothes.
Rule 3: Know what to expect from a good hotel
"Hotels need to change housekeeping systems," Sorkin says. "That means isolating used sheets from new sheets and teaching housekeeping, the front line, that they need to look at the beds or the box springs. They have to know how to capture a bedbug or be able to call a supervisor in if they see one. And then they need to take that room out of circulation, call a company in to do an inspection and do a treatment from insecticide to heat to cold to vacuuming. They might bring in a canine detection unit throughout the whole complex."
Rule 4: Know what to do if you've been exposed to bedbugs
Heat kills bedbugs. Eisenberg's book suggests sticking all of your clothes into the dryer or a large square heating box (about $300) called a PackTite for things that can't go in a dryer (like shoes and stuffed animals and coats). Heating your potentially infested things up to 114 degrees will kill the bugs.
Steam vapor cleaning can work, too. If you go to someone's house, don't put your coat on the bed, and likewise, don't have guests put coats on your bed in your house. If you're having a party, Eisenberg writes, hang the coats on the shower rod.
Rule 5: Don't be embarrassed
Early treatment is easier than dealing with a full-blown invasion. Call professional exterminators the moment you see a bedbug, or suspect your home has bedbugs. If you live in an apartment building, alert your superintendent or co-op board. Likely as not, you’re not the only one who has them. A trained exterminator can come in and flush out the problem more economically if it is confined to, say, the bedroom, rather than waiting until they have multiplied and spread.