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What are bed bugs?

Adult bedbugs are reddish brown, flattened, oval, and wingless, with microscopic hairs that give them a banded appearance. They are sometimes mistaken for ticks or cockroaches. A common misconception is that they are not visible to the naked eye, but adults grow to about ¼ inch long and do not move quickly enough to escape the notice of an attentive observer. The immatures (nymphs) resemble the adults, but are smaller and somewhat lighter in color, they become browner and molt as they reach maturity. When it comes to size, they are often compared to appleseeds.

Female bed bugs lay their eggs in secluded areas and can deposit up to five a day and 500 during a lifetime. The eggs are very small, grayish, and hard to see with the naked eye (individual eggs are about the size of a dust spec). Newly hatched nymphs are no bigger than a pinhead. As they grow, they molt (shed their skin) five times before reaching maturity. A blood meal is needed between each successive stage. Under favorable conditions (70 - 90° F), the bugs can complete development in as little as a month, producing three or more generations per year. Cool temperatures or limited access to a blood meal extends the development time. Bed bugs are very resilient. Nymphs can survive months without feeding and the adults for more than a year. Infestations therefore are unlikely to diminish by leaving premises unoccupied.

Bedbug 4 mm length 2.5 mm width (Shown in a film roll plastic container. On the right you can see the sloughed off skin, which this bedbug just recently wore while a nymph)

Feeding Habits

Bedbugs are generally active only at night, with an optimal attack period about an hour before dawn, though given the opportunity, they may attempt to feed at other times of day. Attracted by warmth and the presence of carbon dioxide, they feed by piercing the skin with an elongated beak through which they withdraw blood. With one tube it injects its saliva, which contains anticoagulants and anesthetics, while with the other it withdraws the blood of its host. After feeding for about five minutes, the bedbug returns to its hiding place. The bites cannot usually be felt until some minutes or hours later, as a dermatological reaction to the injected agents. Although bedbugs can live for up to 18 months without feeding, they typically seek blood every five to ten days.

Bedbugs are often mistakenly associated with filth. They are attracted by exhaled carbon dioxide, not by dirt, and they feed on blood, not waste. In short, the cleanliness of their environments has no effect on bedbugs. Their numbers may be reduced temporarily by vacuuming, but will recover and require vacuuming again.

Health Effects on Humans

The most common concern with bed bugs is whether they transmit diseases. Although bed bugs can harbor pathogens in their bodies, transmission to humans is very unlikely. For this reason, they are not considered a serious disease threat. Their medical significance is mainly limited to the itching and inflammation from their bites. Corticosteroids and antihistamines may be prescribed to reduce allergic reactions, and antiseptic or antibiotic ointments to prevent infection. Infestations also may cause anxiety, paranoia, embarrassment, and loss of sleep.

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