What Causes Bed Bugs and How to Get Rid of Them

Finding out your home has been exposed to bed bugs is enough to give anyone chills. These pests are notorious for entering a home, spreading quickly, and causing a deep infestation. When bed bugs take up residence in and around your bed, they turn to you to keep them alive. That’s right — as you sleep, bed bugs pierce your skin and feed on your blood. Sounds awful, huh?

A bed bug infestation can be a nightmare to deal with. Obviously, the best course of action is prevention. But even if you’ve already found a bed bug (or ten), there are steps you can take to get rid of them and prevent them from entering your home again. Let’s take a look at what causes bed bugs, how to tell if you have them in your home, and actionable steps you can take to prevent and eliminate bed bugs.

What causes bed bugs?

Bed bugs are small, oval-shaped pests that feed on the blood of humans and other mammals. The presence of a single female bed bug is enough to start an infestation. In fact, a female bed bug can lay 2 to 5 eggs each day, and as many as 500 in her lifetime (usually 6 to 12 months). Left unchecked, one bed bug could turn into hundreds in a matter of a few weeks. Bed bugs survive solely on blood, and need to feed at least once every 14 days to reproduce but, when necessary, can survive months at a time without feeding.

One of the most common questions asked is “what causes bed bugs?” Unfortunately, the answer isn’t cut and dry. Bed bugs originated in developing countries in Africa and the Middle East but, as overseas travel became more popular, they spread to developed countries like the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. After the government banned the use of an insecticide known as DDT, which was effective at killing bed bugs but also harmful to humans, the pests began to spread more rapidly. Bed bugs don’t carry disease and, aside from causing itchy, sometimes painful bite marks, don’t pose a huge risk to animals or humans health.

An infestation of bed bugs is caused by spreading the bugs from one place to another. Bed bugs aren’t likely to latch on to you or your clothing as a way to get from one place to another. Instead, bed bugs tend to attach to items found where people travel, allowing them to spread to where humans live (since they feed on the blood of sleeping humans):

  • Luggage
  • Backpacks
  • Briefcases
  • Mattresses
  • Used furniture

Once the bed bugs have attached to your luggage and arrived with you to your hotel or home, they can spread to any small, dark crevice they can find. They don’t have nests but they do tend to live in groups, especially inside of mattresses, box springs, bed frames, and headboards. In other words, bed bugs want to live where they have easy access to humans to feed off of. Though they prefer to be close to the bed, these nuisances will travel between 5 and 20 feet just to feed on a host.

When discussing the causes of a bed bug infestation, it’s important to dispel some of the myths that have perpetuated a stigma around having them.

  • Myth #1: Bed bugs are caused by unclean living conditions — This is absolutely not true. Bed bugs can be found anywhere people sleep or travel, from a 5-star hotel to an airport to your cousin’s odd-smelling basement. Cleanliness is not a factor.
  • Myth #2: Bed bugs spread from person to person — This isn’t entirely false but it’s not exactly true, either. Bed bugs don’t fly or jump like ticks and fleas do, and they tend to stick to more efficient modes of travel, like latching onto your suitcase.
  • Myth #3: Bed bugs can stay contained in one apartment — If you live in an apartment building, you may not realize that a bed bug infestation for your neighbor could be an infestation for you, too. Bed bugs can travel through peeling wall paper, electrical outlets, and practically any other opening in a wall. If your neighbor has an infestation, you should treat for bed bugs right away.

Now that you know what causes bed bugs to infest your home, let’s look at ways to prevent bed bugs.

How can you prevent a bed bug infestation?

In an ideal situation, you won’t ever have to deal with bed bugs in your home or apartment. The best way to ensure this is to take proactive measures. If you live in an apartment, multi-family unit, or have roommates, this may prove more challenging but it’s worth taking as many preventive steps as possible.

Prevent bed bugs when traveling

Travel is one of the quickest ways to bring a family of bed bugs into your home. Whether you’re staying in a hotel, a hostel, or an Airbnb, it’s important to follow these steps to make sure no bed bugs find their way onto your luggage or other personal belongings:

  • Inspect the room you’re sleeping in — Check for live bugs, rusty spots from where bed bugs were crushed, excrement droppings, eggs, and yellowish skins from shedding nymphs. If you find bed bugs or signs of them, let management know immediately. They are legally required to address an infestation and provide you with alternative sleeping arrangements.
  • Keep your suitcase out of the room until you’ve checked for bed bugs — It’s best to keep it in your car or in the bathroom with the door closed. If there are bed bugs in the room, they won’t have access to your luggage and won’t be able to make the trip home with you.
  • Keep luggage off the bed and off the ground — Even if you don’t find evidence of bed bugs in your room, they can travel from other hotel rooms. Keep your suitcase and other bags on a luggage rack or on top of a table.
  • Wrap suitcases in plastic — Airports are full of luggage from around the world which means that they can also be full of bed bugs. For extra prevention, get a plastic suitcase cover.
  • Wash clothes in hot water when you return from travel — Even clothes you didn’t wear should be washed in hot water and dried in a dryer on high heat. If there were any bugs present, this will help kill them and prevent them from finding their way into your bedroom. When moving your clothing to the laundry room, be sure to put it in a plastic bag first, so bed bugs don’t fall off on the way.
  • Inspect and vacuum your luggage when you get home — Before bringing your suitcase into your home, inspect it for bed bugs and vacuum it out, just to be safe.

Prevent bed bugs when moving

When you’re moving to a new home, it’s important to take precautions to make sure bed bugs aren’t transferred from one place to the next, or left behind from previous residents.

  • Inspect your new home for bed bugs — Do this before you move any of your belongings in. Make sure to check the places we listed above. It’s also a good idea to ask the previous residents if they’ve ever had a bed bug problem.
  • Don’t use blankets or coverings from the moving company — There’s no guarantee that the moving company has taken proper measures to check for and remove bed bugs from blankets or furniture coverings. Since these items touch many other peoples furniture and homes, it’s best to avoid using them at all.

Prevent bed bugs at home

If you’re not careful, you may make it easy for bed bugs to enter your home. Fortunately, there are some ways you can prevent bed bugs from coming into your home.

  • Apply caulk to cracks on the inside and outside of your home
  • Make sure window and door screens don’t have any tears
  • Eliminate clutter that makes it easy for bed bugs to hide
  • Use special bed bug coverings to protect your mattress and box spring
  • Keep electrical outlets covered when not in use
  • Vacuum frequently
  • Seal any cracks around baseboards and electrical outlets, to prevent them from moving between walls (especially important in apartments or multi-family homes)

Other tips for preventing bed bugs

  • Be cautious of second-hand items — Previously used clothing, mattresses, luggage, and furniture can host bed bugs and cause an infestation in your home. It’s best to avoid second-hand items that could contain bed bugs. If that’s not an option, be sure to inspect and clean each item thoroughly, before bringing it into your home.
  • Watch for bed bugs in shared laundry rooms — Usually, if an item that has a bed bug on it is washed, the bed bug will die. Still, it’s possible for shared laundry rooms and laundromats to have bed bugs that hideaway. Inspect your laundry after washing, just to be sure.
  • Ask for your apartment’s bed bug policies — If you live in an apartment, there may not be much you can do to prevent bed bugs from infiltrating your apartment. Ask your landlord or management company for a copy of their policies regarding how they handle bed bugs.

Prevention is key if you want to avoid the frustration and stress of dealing with a bed bug infestation. If you’re late to the game and think you may have bed bugs, don’t worry. There are some simple ways to identify the problem.

How to tell if you have bed bugs in your home

If you have even the slight suspicion of a bed bug infestation in your home, it’s important that you treat it. Low-level infestations can be harder to identify and are certainly inconvenient but are easier and much less expensive to treat than a widespread infection. When searching for bed bugs in your home, you’ll want to have a magnifying glass, a flashlight, and a bag to hold any bed bugs you find handy.

Many people believe that bites on the skin are a good indicator of a bed bug infestation but this isn’t always the case. Bed bug bites can look similar to many other kinds of insect bites, as well as eczema, rashes, or hives. Additionally, not all people react to bed bug bites.

Physical evidence of bed bugs

  • Live bed bugs
  • Reddish, rusty looking stains on bed sheets or the mattress (this is caused by bed bugs being crushed)
  • Dark spots that look like a stain from a marker (these are bed bug excrements and can bleed in the same way a marker would)
  • Tiny eggs and eggshells
  • Pale yellow skins (the nymphs, or baby bed bugs, shed these as they grow)

You should also know where to look for bed bugs, aside from obvious places like the mattress. Bed bugs can hide in almost any small, dark space. If you can fit a credit card into a space, a bed bug can fit, too.

Places to check for signs of a bed bug infestation

  • Near the seams and tags of the mattress
  • Inside or on the box spring
  • In cracks on the bed frame and headboard
  • Under loose wallpaper
  • Inside or behind picture frames or wall decor
  • In the joints of drawers and shelving
  • In the crevices of where the wall meets the ceiling or the floor
  • In electrical outlets

You don’t have to rely on seeing a bed bug to know for sure that you have an infestation. Seeing their excrements, skins, eggs, or spots is enough to alert you to a problem. If you see a bed bug or signs of bed bugs, you should call a professional immediately. Even if you’re not 100% sure, it’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s easy to misidentify the signs for something else and the longer an infestation is left untreated, the more it will spread.

How to get rid of bed bugs in your home

If you’ve identified that you have bed bugs, it can be overwhelming to know where to start and how to handle the situation effectively. Don’t worry — there are proven tactics for dealing with a bed bug infestation. With each step, you’ll want to be as strategic as possible because it’s very easy for bed bugs to spread to other areas in your home. If you live in an apartment, contact your landlord immediately; they may be legally required to help with treatment.

Keep the infestation from spreading

The first thing you’ll want to do when you begin the process of getting rid of bed bugs is to avoid the infestation from spreading throughout the house.

  • Placing everything in the infested room in a sealed plastic bag until it can be treated. This includes bedding, clothing, stuffed animals, blankets, toys, and any other items that could contain bed bugs.
  • Discarding furniture that you can’t remove bed bugs from. Make sure to destroy it or mark that it has bed bugs so someone else won’t bring it into their home.
  • Vacuum thoroughly and empty the vacuum bag after every use. You’ll also want to throw the vacuum bag away in an outdoor trash can.

Once you’ve ensured that the bed bug infestation is contained to the original area, you’ll want to start preparing for treatment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns, “Jumping straight into control is tempting, but won’t work. Preparing for treatment is essential to getting successful control. It will also help by making it easier for you to monitor for bed bugs that haven’t been completely eliminated. This preparation should be conducted whether you are doing the treatment yourself or hiring a professional.”

Preparing for treatment against bed bugs

There are several steps you should take to get ready. These include:

  • Remove all clutter from infested room — Bed bugs love to hide out in clutter, so the less there is, the easier it will be to exterminate them. As you remove clutter, be sure to put it into sealed plastic bags and remove from the house so you don’t spread the bugs to another room
  • Move your bed away from the wall — You should move your bed at least 6 inches away from the wall, remove all bed bugs and eggs from your bed (you may need a professional to help with this), and use bed bug interceptors to catch any pests that try to climb up your bed.
  • Clean all items in the infested room — This includes walls, furniture, baseboards, clothing, decorations, curtains, and anything else that is in the room. As you clean, remove any bed bugs, eggs, or skin that you find and dispose of in a sealed plastic bag. Vacuum thoroughly and place the vacuum bag inside of a sealed plastic bag and then into an outdoor trash can.
  • Make necessary repairs — Because bed bugs like to hide in small places, it’s important to inspect the room for any cracks in the wall, floor, or ceiling, damage to the electrical outlets, and tears in the wallpaper. Caulk and repair as needed to make it impossible for bed bugs to live there.

Finally, you’ll want to take steps to kill the bed bugs. Depending on how bad the infestation is, you may want to consider hiring a professional to handle the extermination of bed bugs.

Heat/cold treatment of bed bugs

To kill bed bugs using heat, you can place in a black plastic bag and leave in the sun or in a hot car. Alternatively, you can set your freezer to 0 degrees and leave sealed bags with contaminated items inside the freezer for a minimum of 4 days. While this can be useful for small items, it’s not considered an effective way to destroy an infestation.

Treating bed bugs with pesticides

EPA-registered pesticides that are made specifically to treat bed bugs can be effective. However, these pesticides can be harmful to your health if not used properly. If you have pets or small children, they should not be in the home during or immediately after the use of a pesticide. Make sure to read and follow the instructions on whichever pesticide you choose.

For widespread infestations, your best solution is to call a professional who can provide an intense, thorough bed bug treatment. Whether you treat for bed bugs yourself or hire a pro, you’ll want to be on high alert for several weeks afterward. If you notice any bed bugs or signs of them, your treatment was probably not all the way effective and another may need to be done.

Minimum risk to health, but never easy to deal with

Bed bugs are a dreaded pest problem that can drain your energy and your finances. Thankfully, though, they don’t pose a risk to your health. Still, taking steps to prevent an infestation is your best bet. If you still end up with a bed bug problem, don’t worry. There are ways to treat the issue and prevent them from coming back.