Bed bugs are a fact of life. Virtually impossible to avoid, they are everywhere from the most modest youth hostel to the finest five-star hotel and every roadhouse in between.
And even though bed bugs may make you feel like a gross dirt person, you’re really not. You just happen to be their favorite snackable.
Where do bed bugs live?
Wherever you hang out is where bed bugs like to hang out, too.
Bed bugs like dark protected places where they can remain unperturbed until nighttime—aka feeding time! They like to hide in the seams of mattresses, box springs, bed frames, headboards, chairs and couches, too. There they can remain hidden while staying close to their favorite midnight munchie—you.
“Bed bugs can travel but tend to stay within a few meters of their food source,” says Margaret Green, M.D., M.P.H., an infectious disease specialist who practices internal medicine and pediatrics.
When bed bugs do travel, they hitch a ride on clothes, backpacks, luggage and anything else they’ve burrowed into. (Maybe rethink the keepsake hotel washcloth?)
That’s how these globetrotters end up in abodes around the world where they can live happily ever after with their extended family and a revolving supply of fresh eats. And how they can end up marooned in unexpected places.
How can you tell if a room has bed bugs?
Small rust-colored stains on bed sheets, mattresses and box springs can be telltale signs of bed bugs—specifically bed bug droppings. (Apparently bed bugs never got the memo about not pooping where they eat.)
Teenage bed bugs shed their exoskeleton casings five times before reaching maturity, so another indicator of an infestation is a collection of exoskeletons in your closet—er, bed.
“A bed bug casing is clear and filmy and about half the size of a shed fingernail,” says Green. Bed bugs also release an odor that helps them find their way back to their hideout after feed time. The odor has been described as sweet, musty and a bit like coriander. (But try not to think about that the next time you chow down on tikka masala.)
Of course, finding a live bed bug will confirm an infestation beyond a shadow of a doubt. They look like this—and if you see one, rest assured that it’s well within your rights to freak out a little because: gross.
If you do find bed bugs, know that you’re not alone. Bed bugs are common enough that the Environmental Protection Agency publishes these tips for do-it-yourself bed bug control.
What if a bed bug bites you?
As well as leaving telltale signs in your room, bed bugs can also leave their mark on you. Your blood is the bed bug’s source of nutrition. So these teeny tiny vampires bite you and extract it.
Some people have no reaction at all to bed bug bites while others develop itchy red welts. As with all bug bites, it’s important to try not to scratch so you don’t break the skin and introduce the possibility of infection.
“A little bit of hydrocortisone or some anti-histamine can help. Whatever it takes to avoid scratching, that’s what you should do,” says Green.
If a bite becomes infected, you’ll see redness, swelling and sometimes pus. Treat an infected bed bug bite like you would any other infected skin wound, says Green.
If you can refrain from scratching a bed bug bite, you’ll recover after a week or two at the most. The bites are a health risk only to those who scratch hard enough to break skin—hello, bacteria!—and to the very few who are allergic to proteins in bed bug saliva.
And if you’re worried about the little furballs that share your home, be reassured that fur is a barrier to bed bugs (though they can feed on any place on the body without it). Even if you have a hairless dog or cat, bed bugs still prefer humans to our four-legged friends.
What if you're allergic to bed bugs?
Allergic reactions to bed bug bites are rare, but possible. As with any suspected allergic reaction, if you experience symptoms like wheezing or shortness of breath, you should call 911.
Can you catch anything nasty from a bed bug?
The short answer: no.
“Bed bugs are not viable vectors for hepatitis, HIV, Zika, West Nile virus, Lyme disease or any other bloodborne pathogens,” says Green.
“You’ll still want to eliminate bed bugs from your home but they’re an annoyance—not the menace they would be if they spread disease.”
Hooray for small favors?