“Nighty-night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” When I was a child, I’d hear that affectionate bedtime tease from an older person once in a while. But never did I see a bed bug in the flesh, and for a long time I thought bed bugs were just make-believe, like the boogie man or the monster under the bed.

But as a grownup and owner of a Sacramento pest control company, I now know bed bugs do indeed exist. Practically unheard of when I was a kid, bed bug infestations have become increasingly common in the United States since the 1980s, likely as a result of increased global travel and trade, changes in available pesticides and possibly pesticide resistance. Once associated with crowded, deteriorated housing conditions, bed bugs infestations in the finest hotels have made recent headlines.

Whatever the reason for their resurgence, bed bug infestations are difficult to treat and exceptionally easy to transmit to other locations.

Bed bugs are widespread in temperate climates, most commonly in North America, Europe and Central Asia. The most common bed bug species in California is Cimex lectularius, an oval-shaped, reddish-brown insect, about one-fifth inch long, with a pyramid-shaped head. Female bed bugs lay 200 to 500 white eggs in small clusters of 10 to 50, affixed to rough surfaces like paper or wood by a white sticky coating and not generally visible to the naked eye. Often the egg shells remain in place after the bugs have hatched. During daylight hours, bed bugs hide in cracks and crevices behind headboards, under loose wallpaper and in seams of mattresses, usually not more than a few feet away from a bed and their night-time food source—you!

Bed bugs go through five nymph stages before they reach adulthood, and must take a blood meal at each stage before molting to the next stage. The life cycle may take up to four months, depending on room temperature and access to food. Bed bugs typically live six months to a year, and adults can live for a year or more without feeding.

Although bed bugs can feed on rodents or birds, their optimal food source is humans. At night, they are attracted to the warm bodies of their sleeping food sources, puncturing the skin, and feeding for five to 10 minutes until engorged. Usually the victim sleeps through the pinprick bite, not realizing he or she has been bitten until the next morning. Saliva secreted by the bed bug may cause itchy red welts and in some cases more severe allergic reactions. The only way to know the bite is from a bed bug rather than a mosquito or spider is to find evidence of a bed bug infestation.

Although there is not hard scientific evidence that bed bugs transmit diseases to humans, older scientific literature associated bed bugs with such diseases as tuberculosis, smallpox and plague. Recent studies indicate that while the bugs do indeed ingest disease germs from humans, they do not replicate or transmit the germs back to humans.

Adult bed bugs and clusters of the lighter-colored nymphs are visible to the naked eye, but because they hide so well, it usually takes a thorough inspection to spot them. Since bed bugs are almost always found near a bed, start by checking mattress seams, box springs, head boards and bed frames. They also leave tiny, dark-red fecal stains and shed skins that are sometimes easier to spot than the insects themselves. They have stink glands, and you may notice a strong, rotten meat smell where there is a heavy infestation.

Bed bugs are great travelers, and you may inadvertently bring them home in luggage or packages, from hotels, movie theaters, and bus or train seats. If your holiday plans include travel, whether you’re staying at a 5-star hotel or a roadside inn, a good rule of thumb is to leave your bags at the door of your room, pull up the bedding and check the mattress seams and surrounding nooks and crannies for any sign of these unwelcome occupants—before you start unpacking.

Eliminating bed bugs is time- and labor-intensive. Pesticide treatment must be coupled with thorough steam cleaning, vacuuming, washing of bedding in hot water, sealing up hiding places, and ongoing monitoring of the affected areas. Over-the-counter chemicals are less effective in field tests, and the most effective pesticides for use on bed bugs must be applied by licensed pest control professionals.

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