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Protecting Your Family: Recognizing the Signs of Bed Bugs

Key indicators to watch out for—from the bed bug bites they leave behind to the dark spots in your house where they like to hide.

Protecting Your Family: Recognizing the Signs of Bed Bugs

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When your child's school lets you know about a suspected bed bug case with another student, your brain can't help but go straight to the most worrying possibilities beyond your control. But don't panic just yet — just because there's a case at the school doesn't automatically mean the bugs will make their way to your home.

In the meantime, being proactive and watching for any signs of bed bugs is a good idea. If you're unsure what to look for, here are the key indicators to watch out for—from the bed bug bites they leave behind to the dark spots in your house where they like to hide.

What are bed bugs?

According to board-certified family medicine physician Laura Purdy, MD, MBA, bed bugs are insects that feed on blood. "These pests have an apple seed-like appearance and a reddish-brown colour," Purdy elaborates. "Bed bugs are drawn to people and tend to be found in places where humans live."

However, Purdy clarifies that bed bugs are not selective in their targets, and their presence is not determined by age or cleanliness. Instead, bed bugs are brought into a home from the outside and can travel with personal items.

Signs of bed bugs

Physical signs

The most common physical sign of bed bugs is bedbug bites. "These bites typically manifest themselves as small red and itchy welts on the skin that often cluster or occur in lines and may result in localized swelling, says Purdy. "While allergic reactions are rare, they are possible, and people with sensitive skin may experience more irritation. Avoiding excessive scratching is important, as this can lead to infection. Bed bug bites typically resolve within one to two weeks with proper treatment."

In addition to visible signs, bed bugs can be detected by their distinctive musty odors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that those dealing with bed bug infestations frequently report these sweet, musty odors (similar to berries).

Behavioral signs

Purdy explains that behavioral cues associated with bed bugs include tiredness and irritability stemming from poor sleep quality and persistent skin itching. If you are worried about your kids scratching, she advises cutting their nails short or putting bandaids over the bits to prevent scratching in their sleep.

someone holding up a mattress and shining a flashlight showing fake bed bugs iStock

Inspecting your home for signs of bed bugs

Bedroom Inspection

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Check Mattresses: 

To check your bedroom for bed bugs, start by inspecting your mattress carefully. "Check the corners of the mattress," says Nicole Carpenter, president of Black Pest Prevention, a pest control company based in North Carolina. If you have bed bugs, you'll see tiny brown or dark spots, which are bug excrements. Bed bugs have exoskeletons, so you can also find some shed skins in the crevices of your bed."

Examine Bedroom Furniture 

After you've carefully inspected your mattress, Carpenter recommends examining your bedroom furniture for signs of bed bugs. "The scent of the human body attracts bed bugs, and if you have infestations, you'll find signs like small brown spots of excrement and tiny white eggs in furniture creases," she explains.

Inspect Overlooked areas: 

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Carpenter mentioned a few other areas in your room that are commonly overlooked. "These include baseboards and electrical outlets, drawers, cracks, or dents," she says.

Other Areas to Check

Because of their small size, bed bugs can easily hide in places such as curtains and carpets, says Carpenter. To spot them, she suggests checking for blood stains, discarded skins, and live bugs the size of an apple seed.

Upholstered furniture like couches and chairs and furniture with many crevices and seams are also appealing to bed bugs. "This is because bed bugs can easily hide and lay their eggs in these hidden areas," she explains. "Look for tiny white eggs and bed bug's exoskeleton sheds when checking your furniture for bed bug infestation."

While bed bugs can hide in many places, it's important to remember they prefer to inhabit places where they can 'interact' with a human and have a meal. Carpenter tells Today's Parent, "That's why bed bugs are often found in bedding, mattresses and box springs; these items absorb the human scent they love."

How to prevent bed bugs

Bed bugs are commonly spread through traveling and shared environments. To prevent them from entering your home, Carpenter suggests inspecting hotel rooms for signs of bed bugs, using luggage racks for your suitcases, and changing your shoes and clothing before returning home.

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Carpenter suggests regularly inspecting for signs of bed bugs and cleaning your home as other ways to prevent bed bugs. "Besides vacuuming floors and carpets, remember to vacuum your bed, bed mattress, and bedroom furniture. Vacuum them thoroughly, especially in areas where bed bugs can hide, and wash your bedding (comforters, pillowcases, bed sheets, bed skirts, etc.) once a week."

inspector looking at a mattress in a bedroom iStock

What to do if you find bed bugs

Suppose you discover bed bugs in your home. In that case, Dr. Katherine Williamson, MD, a pediatrician with the Children's Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) Primary Care Network, recommends encasing the mattress, pillow, and bed frame where bed bugs were found. Then, aim to de-clutter your space and vacuum the whole house, covering all nooks and crannies. "After cleaning, dispose of the vacuum filter and bags in a sealed plastic bag," adds Dr. Williamson.

Afterward, you should wash your clothes, sheets, comforters, pillowcases, and bed skirts in hot water. "It's equally important to dry everything on a hot setting to help ensure that any bed bugs and their eggs are eliminated," says Dr. Williamson.

But while it's tempting to try and tackle a bed bug problem yourself, Kristen Stevens, an associate certified entomologist with Fox Pest Control, a pest control company based in Utah, says it's best to call in the professionals. She explains to Today's Parent, "Even though bed bugs do not pose health risks, they can reproduce quickly, making them difficult to eliminate on your own. Be sure to show the pest control professional all signs of bed bugs. If you can collect live bed bugs for them to identify, that will help the process move faster."

What else to keep in mind

Bed bugs can be pretty scary, but when it comes to talking to your kids about them, Purdy advises staying calm and composed.

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"The reality is, if your child is at school and around other kids, they're probably going to come across bed bugs at some point," she explains to Today's Parent. "Just like illnesses, these pests can spread quickly in classrooms. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do to prevent this from happening other than reminding your child to only use and touch their belongings, like their backpack and extra clothes."

Experts

  • Laura Purdy, MD, MBA, a board-certified family medicine physician
  • Kristen Stevens, an associate certified entomologist with Fox Pest Control, a pest control company based in Utah
  • Dr. Katherine Williamson, MD, a pediatrician with the Children's Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) Primary Care Network
  • Nicole Carpenter, president of Black Pest Prevention, a pest control company based in North Carolina

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