Not long ago, "sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite" was just a sweet rhyme parents said to their kids when tucking them into bed.
But recent infestations of bedbugs that have affected even the cleanest hotels and homes have people on high alert, checking mattresses and furniture for telltale signs of these irritating, hard-to-control pests.
A bedbug is a small (about the size of a pencil eraser), flat, reddish-brown bug that can be found in homes all over the world. Bedbugs hide during the day in or around beds and crevices in chairs, couches, curtains, rugs, dressers, and even in cracks of walls and floors and behind wallpaper.
They come out at night to find food, which in their case means blood. Bedbugs have a special ingredient in their saliva (spit) that keeps blood from clotting while they feed, typically at night in areas where people sleep. After their blood meal, bedbugs don't stay on a person for long. Instead, they seek refuge nearby, often in clothing or luggage, allowing them to spread when belongings are moved to another location.
If someone is bitten by a bedbug, the bite will feel itchy. Bedbug bites look like little red bumps (similar to mosquito bites) and they can sometimes occur in a line on the body.
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.
Once at your destination, do a bedbug check of every room before settling in. You probably won't see the bedbugs themselves, but certain telltale signs can alert you to their presence. Pull back sheets to look for little spots of blood on mattresses, or remove the sheets and look on and under the mattress, especially around its seams (also check headboards and footboards).
If you find any signs of bedbugs, ask for other rooms and inspect them, too. If you still see signs of bedbugs, find another place to stay.
Once in your room, keep luggage off the floor and beds — use the luggage racks most hotels and motels provide or put suitcases on a table or desk. Hang up clothes whenever possible, and when you get back home, dump dirty clothes right into the washing machine.
If you think your child has been bitten by a bedbug, wash the bites with soap and water. Using calamine lotion, an anti-itch cream, or cool compresses can help with the itching. In some cases, an antihistamine by mouth can reduce itching. Bites clear up in 1-2 weeks.
Encourage your child not to scratch the bites because doing so can cause a skin infection, such as impetigo and, rarely, cellulitis. If an infection does occur, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics to treat it.
Keep your home uncluttered so bedbugs won't have places to hide. Change bedsheets once a week and vacuum floors regularly. If you find bedbugs, 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.