5 myths about bedbugs, busted

Confused about these creepy critters? Get the facts about bedbugs’and what you can do to keep them out of your home

5 myths about bedbugs, busted

Source: Web exclusive, November 2010

Bedbugs are North America’s new favourite villains’the butt of jokes on late night comedy talk shows, the stars of countless magazine and newspaper features, and the subject of endless Internet chatter. Despite this torrent of attention (or perhaps because of it), it can be difficult to know what’s rumour and what’s reality. So we consulted Taz Stuart, entomologist for the City of Winnipeg and a person at the frontline of Canada’s campaign against bedbugs, to set the record straight. Get to know these pests and we guarantee you’ll sleep better at night.

1. Myth: Poor hygiene can lead to bedbugs.

Truth: Bedbugs do not discriminate between places that are spotless and those that are  sullied’they’re simply looking for a warm-blooded human to feed on. ‘Infestations are not reflective of being dirty,’ says Stuart. Similarly, he adds, ‘you can spend $10,000 a night on a hotel room in Las Vegas and still have bed bugs, just like a $10 a night room.’

An infestation starts when a few bugs move from one place to another by hitchhiking on people or their stuff, or by migrating, say, from the apartment next door. The pests are most common in places with high occupancy turnover‘think hotels, rental apartments and even hospitals’where they can easily stow away on clothing or other personal belongings. When an adult female has found a new host and a new place to hide, she’ll lay four or five eggs (200 to 500 eggs in a lifetime) and the population will explode.

Did you know? Bedbugs can travel 5 to 20 feet nightly in search of a meal.

2. Myth: Bedbugs can make you sick.

Truth: Bedbugs do not transmit disease, despite the fact that they may feed on multiple people. But their bites can be a nuisance, often causing itchy red welts at the site of a bite or a more generalized allergic reaction. (Some lucky people have no symptoms at all.) A case of bedbugs can also take an emotional toll, says Stuart, due to factors such as shame, sleep-deprivation and stress.

What’s the best way to get relief from itchy bites? Unfortunately, a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that treatments, such as over-the-counter or prescription corticosteroids, were no more affective than leaving bites alone.

Tip: Bites often occur in groups of three, which experts call the ‘breakfast, lunch and dinner’ markings.

3. Myth: Bedbugs only live in beds.

Truth: They can live practically anywhere. Stuart says he has seen bedbugs in laptop computers, books and cellphones. However, he adds that a bedbug’s ideal home is a dark place in the vicinity of a human host, such as a mattress. Other hiding places include couches, electrical sockets and headboards.

If you suspect you have bedbugs, scour your home for evidence. Live reddish-brown nymphs (juveniles) or adult bugs can be seen with the naked eye, as can their shells, excrement, which looks like black pepper, and rust-coloured blood stains. Adult bedbugs are about the size and shape of an apple seed (4-6 mm) and are flat unless they’ve recently fed. Eggs, which are small (about 1 mm) and white, resembling a grain of rice, are harder to spot.

Tip: Stay vigilant. Look for signs of infestations when you’re cleaning your home or spending the night away from home.

Myth: A dose of the Canadian cold will kill bedbugs.

Truth: Putting your couch outside in the cold for a couple of days isn’t going to resolve a bedbug problem, says Stuart. The same goes for the freezer: It’s not cold enough to kill bedbug eggs, though it may kill a few adults, he says. Recently, a product called cryonite, that uses dry ice to freeze bedbugs on contact, was approved in Canada but it is just one of several chemical and non-chemical options that a pest control professional might use to wage war against the pests.

Did you know? Adult bedbugs have staying power’they can live for 12 to 18 months without a meal.

5. Myth: Using lots of chemicals will solve a bedbug problem.

Truth: Bedbug-specific pesticides can be purchased at hardware stores, but it’s unlikely that pesticides alone will end an infestation. So resist the urge to reach for a spray can. Bedbugs are very sly: They can actually sense a chemical onslaught and will move away and hide, says Stuart. That means that the best’and safest’approach to bedbug control is a combination of strategies known as ‘integrated pest management.’ These include non-toxic techniques such as vacuuming, sealing off hiding places, and monitoring for bugs using sticky tape, as well as chemicals.

There are various commercial-grade chemicals available to pest control professionals in Canada, but none of them kill bedbug eggs, so multiple applications are usually required. Another control option is direct heat. Professionals may use heat boxes and trucks to raise the temperature of objects above 124ºF  (51ºC), the temperature at which eggs, nymphs and adult bedbugs will all be killed.

Tip: Kill off hitchhiking bedbugs by throwing your clothes in the dryer on high for 15 to 20 minutes.

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