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Preventing, Identifying And Treating Bed Bug Invasions

Carolyn Kaster
A bed bug is displayed at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

Bed bugs are equal opportunity infesters. They don’t discriminate who they’ll bite based on any socioeconomic or demographic factors. With students returning home from college and tenants moving to new apartments, bed bug incidents in Pittsburgh are likely to increase.

Adult bed bugs are roughly the size of an apple seed and pale to reddish brown in color. They’re flat and elongated, and can reach full maturation in about a month.

“They can become an infestation pretty rapidly,” said Adam Witt, president of Polish Hill-based Witt Pest Management.


Female bed bugs can lay one to five eggs a day, or about 300 in a lifetime. Their reproduction rate is a major reason Witt said early detection of infestations is important for effective eradication. To detect the bugs, Witt said to look for evidence of blood smears, fecal matter the size of a pen dot and part of their exoskeleton. If bed bugs are confirmed to be in a house, he recommends calling a professional.


“There’s no silver bullet,” Witt said. “[But there are] a lot of great new chemistries that have been very successful in eliminating bed bugs.”


Commercial pest control companies will take a number of different approaches to killing the bed bug population including heat treatment, biological pesticides and encasement techniques. Most options, he said, are safe for pets and children.


Bed bugs feed exclusively on blood meals, usually from humans in their deepest sleep, around 3-5 a.m. Bill Todaro, entomologist for the Allegheny County Health Department, said bites resemble those from mosquitoes; they’re swollen, red and itch a lot. Bed bugs can’t carry diseases from person to person, he said, but scratching too much on the wound can open the possibility for bacteria from elsewhere to infect it.


When bed bugs bite, their salivary glands release a small amount of anesthetic that prevents humans from feeling their puncture. Then, they spit out an anticoagulant, or blood thinner, which makes it easier for them to feed. Bites will heal on their own, but creams and over-the-counter anti-itch medication can ease pain.


Although there's no completely effective way to prevent the parasite from entering a home, Todaro said verifying the cleanliness and origins of second-hand items can stop a potential infestation. Regularly inspecting the area around headboards and furniture legs can help in early detection.


If someone believes they’ve already been exposed, Witt said clothing should be bagged up and put in the dryer on high heat for 30 minutes.


“That should kill anything that’s in there,” Witt said.


Bed bug traps that entice the insects with carbon dioxide before trapping them can be effective, too, but Witt said they’re not foolproof.


“They’re hitchhikers, they’re attracted to the human scent, [your] carbon dioxide,” Witt said.


Infestations are a relatively recent problem in the United States. Witt said they were essentially eradicated in the 1930s and '40s when people started using the pesticide DDT regularly. The chemical is now banned, but Witt said that’s not the main issue facing the pest control industry. Now, they’re fighting a new, evolved breed of bed bugs that are resistant to many modern pesticides.


“They’re very resilient,” he said. “They can process pesticides better and defend themselves.”


Of all the calls about health issues that go to Todaro’s office each week, he said about 15-20 of them are regarding bed bug infestations. Pittsburgh was ranked 12th by the commercial pest control company Terminix last year for bed bug infestations, based on service requests. Incidents surge during holidays when people travel and times of heavy residential turnover.