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Bedbugs

Did your mom or dad tuck you in with "sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite" when you were a little kid? That cute rhyme probably seemed pretty silly at the time — in fact, you might have wondered what a bedbug even was!

But recent infestations of bedbugs in hotels and homes have people frantically checking mattresses and furniture for telltale signs of these tough-to-kill little bloodsuckers.

Bedbug Basics

A bedbug is a flat, reddish-brown bug about the size of an apple seed. Bedbugs come out at night to feed on human blood, usually in areas where people sleep. During the day, they hide in or around beds, chairs, couches, dressers, curtains, and rugs. They also may hide in cracks in walls and floors and behind wallpaper.

After feasting on a person's blood, a bedbug goes off to hide, often in clothing or luggage. This is how people take bedbugs home from hotels and other places they stay.

Bedbug bites don't hurt and they don't cause or spread infection. But they usually turn into small, itchy red bumps (similar to mosquito bites). They can sometimes show up in a line on the body.

bedbugs illustration

Travel Precautions

Since you're more likely to encounter bedbugs while traveling than in your home, it's wise to plan ahead. A number of websites let travelers search for bedbug infestation reports by city (and sometimes by hotel) so you can do a little research before you leave home.

At your destination, do a bedbug inspection of your room before settling in. Keep your luggage off the floor and beds — use the luggage racks most hotels and motels provide or put it on a table or desk.

You may not see the bedbugs themselves, but telltale signs can alert you to their presence. Pull back the sheets to look for little spots of blood on a mattress, or remove the sheets and look for bugs on and under the mattress, especially around its seams (also check headboards and footboards).

If you find any signs of bedbugs, ask for another room and inspect that one, too. If you still see signs of bedbugs, find another place to stay.

When staying away from home, hang up your clothes whenever possible. When you get back home, dump dirty clothes right into the washing machine.

Treatment

If you think you've been bitten by a bedbug, wash the bites with soap and water. Use calamine lotion, an anti-itch cream, or cool compresses to help with the itching. If it's really bad, ask your doctor if taking antihistamine pills or syrups may help. Bites clear up in 1-2 weeks.

Bedbug bites on their own don't cause infection. But scratching the bites can introduce bacteria and lead to skin infections like impetigo and, rarely, cellulitis. If you do get an infection from scratching bites, see your doctor.

Tackling Bedbugs

Bedbugs are tough to get rid of. Besides being difficult to spot, they can survive for several months without feeding. Avoid bringing them home by taking the time to inspect any guest quarters you stay in, especially public ones like hotels, motels, hostels, and cruise ships.

Although bedbugs can show up in the cleanest houses, it's still a good idea to keep your room neat and clutter free. That way if bedbugs do find a way into your room they won't have as many places to hide. Change your sheets once a week and vacuum regularly.

If you find bedbugs, let your mom or dad know. They'll want to wash and dry all bedding, clothing, stuffed animals, etc., at high temperatures. Local pest control companies can offer more specific recommendations for exterminating them with or without pesticides.

Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: August 2011