All You Need to Know About Bed Bugs and Mattress Encasements
Bed bugs are blood-sucking insects that are like tiny vampires. You are likely to get bitten by them and bring them home if you frequently travel, stay in hotels or homeless shelters, are admitted to hospitals, or if you have frequent guests at home. Bed bugs love places that have a fast turnover of people as it gives them access to newer hosts.
From there, they hide in clothes, suitcases, shoes, etc., to hitchhike and reach your homes. Then, they call your home their own, and you have to run around and seek professional help to get them out.
Having bed bugs can invite a lot of medical and financial costs. They are also a source of nuisance, especially if you hate creatures with multiple legs. They may even drag you to litigation if you run a business that deals with overnight guests. It’s not a far reach to understand why some people call them bad bugs instead of bed bugs.
What Exactly is a Bed Bug and Why is It Important?
A bed bug is a small insect that feeds exclusively on the blood of people or animals, as do some mosquitoes. But unlike mosquitoes, a bed bug cannot fly since it is wingless.
Bed bugs are nocturnal insects and prefer to bite you while you are deep in sleep.
Each time a bed bug feeds on your blood, it gives you itchy bed bug bites. These can be in patterns, such as clusters or lines. Bed bugs are more likely to leave a bite mark on exposed surfaces of your body, such as the face, neck, hands, etc. Not surprisingly, bed bug bites are responsible for many emergency room visits in the U.S., especially among children and the elderly.
Bed bugs qualify as parasitic insects because they tend to feed on blood, but more importantly, they do not need a fast refeeding of blood and may even live for a few months without a fresh meal, making them very resilient parasites. For this reason, they safely live away from your gaze and remain hidden during the day, in places where you are unlikely to spend your time, such as your bed. You might occasionally find them hidden in the cracks and crevices of your bed, box springs, or bed frames.
Further adding to their resilience is their ability to reproduce at a high rate. You might be surprised by the fact that a female bed bug lays one or two eggs per day that can turn into adults within a few weeks. This rapid multiplication combined with their ability to live without blood for weeks makes bed bugs particularly annoying parasite infestations that are difficult to deal with.
Bed bugs are fast developing resistance to chemical insecticides. This acquired resistance to the effects of insecticide has caused a resurgence of bed bugs in the United States over the last few years. A newer species of the bed bug is getting introduced in parts of the U.S., as is the case with Florida.
You’ll be amazed to know that, like cockroaches, bed bugs have amazing immune systems, which means that they are particularly good at surviving against the threat of microbes. Each adult bed bug lives for several months, and its lifespan can stretch up to a year.
Due to these qualities, bed bugs are considered the most difficult pests to deal with by over 68% of pest control professionals. In line with this, the CDC and the Mayo Clinic recommend using professionals to manage bed bug infestations.
According to the CDC, bed bugs can cause health problems like insomnia, anxiety, skin problems, allergies, and even anaphylaxis. Although the CDC claims that bed bugs do not transmit pathogens when they feed on human blood, there are some conflicting claims from other scientists, who believe that bed bugs cannot be ruled out as vectors of human diseases since as many as 45 disease pathogens have been reported in bed bugs. Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency labels them as “pests of significant health importance.”
What Do Bed Bugs and Their Infestations Look Like?
a) The physical appearance of a bed bug
- A bed bug is oval and is slightly bigger than lice
- They are reddish-brown (mahogany) in color
- A bed bug is flat when unfed, but it might appear swollen after a full meal
- An adult bed bug is between 5-7mm in size, comparable to an apple seed
- The eggs, larvae, and nymphs of bed bugs are smaller in size (between 1-4mm) and paler in appearance
- A bed bug has two antennae and six legs
- A bed bug is wingless
A magnified image of the bed bug. Image credit: Olivia Lai
b) Insects not to be confused with bed bugs
People sometimes confuse bed bugs with other insects like lice, but bed bugs don’t prefer to hide on your body hair as they don’t like heat. If you find tiny oblong insects in your head after a hotel stay, they’re more likely to be head lice.
Some people confuse them with scabies mites, but scabies mites are microscopic and are not visible to the naked eye.
Another insect commonly confused with bed bugs is ticks. They’re similar in size and are flat and wingless. One way to differentiate between the two is by counting their legs. Ticks have eight legs, while bed bugs have six. Unlike bedbugs, ticks are more commonly found in outdoor spaces.
Lastly, fleas are tiny reddish-brown insects with six legs. However, fleas have narrow and long bodies, and they can make long jumps, unlike bed bugs.
Nevertheless, distinguishing between these tiny insects can be a challenge for home or hotel owners. It’s better to have a professional consultation if you suspect that they’re at your home or facility, and it’s important to heed professional advice for their control.
c) External signs of bed bug infestation
- Rusty spots and dark specks on mattresses or mattress covers could be dried feces of bed bugs or crushed bed bugs
- Bed bug bite marks or welts on your body. It is often difficult to differentiate a bed bug bite from a mosquito bite.
- Bed bug eggs, eggshells, and shedded skin
- A musty odor
Bed bug feces and nymphs on mattresses. Image Credit: M. Potter
A Brief History of Bed Bugs
It is said that bed bugs are likely to be found within an 8-foot distance from a bed, giving them their common name of bed bugs. Like other species, biologists have a scientific name for the bed bug, i.e., Cimex lectularius. Bed bugs and their association with humans dates back thousands of years. Like humans, bed bugs are practically found in all countries of the world regardless of development and hygiene standards.
There was a temporary reduction of bed bugs in rich countries in the West due to the overuse of insecticides and pesticides during the last century. However, as mentioned above, bed bugs have overcome this chemical challenge and developed resistance to their effects.
Now, there’s a rapid resurgence across the developed world, including the U.S. Moreover, a second species of bed bugs, Cimex hemipterus, usually found in tropical regions, has been reported in parts of the U.S. for the last few years.
Bed bugs and cleanliness have little correlation. Bed bugs are not only found in homeless shelters but also in 5-star hotels, resorts, trains, buses, cruise ships, apartments, homes, and hospitals. You might be surprised to know that 80% of hotels, 58% of nursing homes, and 36% of hospitals report bed bugs every year despite most of them having specialized pest control programs.
What Do Bed Bugs Eat?
Bed bugs don’t and can’t eat clothes, wood, and other materials present in your bed or furniture. Bed bugs solely feed on the blood. They prefer feeding on human blood, but they can also feed on animals. Children and older adults are particularly likely to be bitten by bed bugs.
You should be careful if you notice bed bug bites on your pets. Although bed bugs prefer to bite during the night, a hungry bed bug may not shy away from biting you or your pet during the day.
Where and How Do Bed Bugs Live and Hide?
Bed bugs are smart insects. They are so good at hiding themselves that you’ll wonder where they came from. They know where they are going to find an idle (sleeping) host that they can safely attach themselves to. They stay on you for up to 10 minutes while sucking your blood. Their bites are painless. They use anesthetic and anticoagulants to make it painless. They also prefer to stay in groups.
Their safe place is in and around your bed within cracks and crevices! Other places of your bed where they usually hide include box springs, bed frames, headboards, and mattress seams.
Sometimes, they hide in other places in your bedroom, such as under peeling paint, loose wallpaper, carpets, furniture seams, skirts, fabric folds of your sofas and recliners, electrical outlets, screw holes, etc., which are practically anything in your bedroom that is hard-to-reach.
If you think using commonly available insect repellents is going to help contain bed bugs, you are mistaken as these agents are proven to be ineffective against bed bugs. Similarly, if you think that sleeping with the lights on is going to be a deterrent to bed bugs, you are again likely to be proven wrong.
How Does a Mattress Encasement Help Control Bed Bug Infestations?
By this point, you are aware that your mattress is the favorite site for bed bugs, especially because it offers them the easiest access to you, and it cannot be treated chemically like other furniture. It isn’t easy to maintain heavy mattresses on a day-to-day basis. You can’t vacuum and launder them all the time. Moreover, mattresses are costly items and cannot be discarded after short-term use.
Due to the limitations of other methods used to treat mattresses, mattress encasements offer promising and perhaps one of the most effective solutions for preventing the menace of bed bugs. When used on a previously infested mattress, the long-term use of a high-quality encasement is likely to isolate bed bugs and eliminate them. Even if bed bugs are present elsewhere, they will find it difficult to cross the barrier of a mattress encasement before reaching your body.
One can argue that the concept of mattress encasement is not new and has evolved from mattress covers. But, recent technological advancements have greatly shaped the nature of mattress encasements that are currently available. They now offer distinct advantages over traditional mattress covers in terms of comfort, durability, and bed bug control.
In addition, modern mattress encasements take care of the airflow of the bed to ensure optimal temperature regulation and breathability. Many of them are waterproof and hence extend the life of your mattress.
Some of them also offer the advantage of being dust-allergen-proof and fire-retardant. Antimicrobial treatments ensure that bacterial growths are taken care of. All of these added benefits ensure that the quality of your sleep is changed for the better. Bed-bug-proof encasements are now also available for sofa sleepers and pillows.
It should be emphasized that certified bedbug-proof mattress encasements are now available in the market and can be easily trusted for their effectiveness and a complete seal. One such patented technology is the BugStop Seal® which prevents bed bugs from getting in or out of mattresses and box spring covers. It is a simple solution to a complex problem.
These added features can add to your comfort and specific needs, but the main purpose of a mattress encasement is your protection from the menace of bed bugs and other associated health hazards.
We must also remember that bed bugs are smart parasites, and while mattress encasements are one tool to combat them, they should be rationally combined with other interventions to minimize your exposure to bed bugs. A professional and comprehensive strategy under the guidance of experts works best in effectively controlling the menace of bed bugs.
- Bed bugs FAQs -- CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/bedbugs/faqs.html
- Uncovering the hidden cost of bed bugs. https://www.pnas.org/content/116/15/7160
- Bed bugs -- Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bedbugs/symptoms-causes/syc-20370001
- Bed bugs and possible transmission of human pathogens: a systematic review https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00403-016-1661-8
- Bed bugs -- University of Kentucky. https://entomology.ca.uky.edu/ef636