Where Do Bed Bugs Come From?

Bed bug infestations aren’t dangerous. While they do bite humans, they don’t carry or transmit diseases. And unlike termites, they won’t do serious damage to your home.

But they are a nuisance. Their bites can be itchy and irritating. They can cause you to lose sleep as they feed on you at night. And the mere sight of them makes plenty of people uncomfortable.

Exterminating bed bugs can be time-consuming and expensive. The best way to deal with bed bugs, then, is to never let them into your home in the first place. But how can you do that exactly?

In this article, we’ll go over the different ways people accidentally invite bed bugs into their homes, how bed bugs spread once they’re in the home, and what steps you can take to reduce your risk of getting a bed bug infestation.

CC Image courtesy of AFPMB

How Are You Most Likely to Pick Up Bed Bugs?

Bed bug infestations come as a surprise to most people. When you find those pests in your home, you’ll probably wonder what you did to bring them in. It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact source in any given case, but here are some of the most common ways you can get bed bugs in your home.

Second-Hand Items

Buying second-hand items that were previously housed in a home with a bed bug problem is one of the most common ways people get saddled with their own infestation. 

Bed bugs are tiny and like to hide in hard-to-spot cracks and crevices, and their eggs are even harder to see. A quick visual inspection of a piece of furniture, clothing, or other items isn’t usually enough to show the bugs that lurk in them. 

Discarded Mattresses

This is another common source for bed bugs. A mattress that’s been left on the curb and looks in decent shape can be hard to resist, but it’s often a fool’s bargain. Although it’s usually unnecessary, many people throw out their mattresses after finding bed bugs in their home. Taking that mattress into your home isn’t worth the risk.

Public Spaces

Bed bugs are often called “hitchhikers” because they will find their way on people’s clothes or in their bags and get carried into their homes that way. Unfortunately, just going about in the world is all it takes to pick up bed bugs. It could be from a seat on a bus or train, at work, from the bed in a hotel or motel room, or just about anywhere where people share seats or beds.

Guests

Your guests might also bring them into your home. They may not even realize they have a bed bug problem at home but still be carrying some in their bags or on their clothes when they visit your place. By the time they discover their bed bug problem, the bugs they brought into your home might have already started an infestation.

Neighbors

If you share a wall with your neighbors, you can get a bed bug infestation simply because they have one. This is true for apartments and condos, but also townhouses and duplexes. 

If your neighbor has a bed bug infestation, assume you have one too and start inspecting. If you catch the problem early, you might be able to take care of it yourself at minimal cost

How to Tell if a Place Might Have a Bed Bug Problem

When you’re visiting someone else’s home, picking up a second-hand item from a seller’s place, or staying in an Airbnb over the holiday, it might be a good idea to keep a look-out for some of the tell-tale signs of a bed bug infestation. Some of these are easier to spot than others, but by knowing all of them, you’ll be able to notice a bed bug issues before they cling to your clothes or bags and make their way to your home. 

How to Spot a Bed Bug

First, you’ll need to know how to spot a bed bug, since they can easily be mistaken for other types of pests.

The first thing to know about bed bugs is that they are tiny (less than 0.2 inches when fully grown). You won’t need a magnifying glass to see them, but they can be easy to miss, especially if they’re not clustered together. They have a reddish-brown body that is flat, along with six legs and two antennae 

Before they reach the adult stage, baby bed bugs (or nymphs) will have a slightly different appearance. 

Where Bed Bugs Hide

In addition to knowing what bed bugs look like, you’ll also need a good idea of where to look

As the name implies, the first and most obvious place to look is the bed. But instead of looking at the surface of the bed, give the mattress a lift and look underneath. Look behind the headboard. Check in the corners of the bed frame. 

Next, check armchairs, couches. Look at the cracks and crevices of the furniture itself as well as the seams on the seats and cushions.

Finally, have a look at carpeting, rugs, the baseboards along the wall, the walls, and where the wall meets the ceiling. If there’s wallpaper on the walls, pay close attention to the seams where the paper meets, or any holes and tears in the paper. 

Bed bugs are a lot less likely to take up residence in bathrooms or in parts of the home where there is not much human activity. Focus your search on the rooms where people tend to sit and rest.

The Basic Signs

When people discover bed bugs, one of the first things they notice are rusty or reddish stains, usually between a mattress and box spring, under the linen that’s spread on the bed, or under the pillow. Bed bugs feed on blood, and those stains are the result of bed bugs (and the contents of their stomachs) getting crushed by the weight of the people laying in bed. 

Female bed bugs lay multiple eggs per day, so the next thing to watch for are eggs or egg casings. As you can imagine, the eggs are much smaller than fully grown bed bugs, which makes them hard to see unless you’re inspecting up close. In fact, on first inspection, a bed bug may look more like some kind of white granular substance than an insect egg, so it can be helpful to look for additional signs of bed bug activity to confirm. 

You might also find bed bug droppings. These will look like small black spots, and if they’re on clothing or the surface of a mattress or box spring, the color might bleed into the fabric.

Bed Bug Bites

Bed bugs are active at night and feed on human blood, usually by biting us in our sleep. Those bites leave marks similar to a mosquito bite. If the people who sleep in the space you’re checking out show or complain about symptoms similar to those of bug bites, this could be a good indication that bed bugs have taken up residence there. 

There is a common misconception that bed bugs will only bite parts of the skin that are exposed. In fact, bed bugs will bite you in places that are covered by your pajamas. Don’t dismiss these bites just because they’re not on your face, neck, hands, or feet. 

It’s also important to know that not everyone is affected equally. Some people can get bit by bed bugs and show very few symptoms, while others might not be able to ignore the swelling, redness, and itchiness that comes with theirs. If two people share a bed and only one of them has visible bites, that’s no reason to dismiss the possibility of an infestation.

How Do Bed Bugs Get into the Home?

Bed bugs can’t fly. They can crawl, but they’re slow. So, how can such small, slow pests manage to make their way into your home and all the way into your bedroom, especially when you’re careful not to let insects into your home when you cross through the door?

While bed bugs could certainly crawl into your home from outdoors, this is rarely how they make their way in. If you’ve got bed bugs in your home, it’s more likely that they got in through one of these means.

From Your Neighbors

If you live in an apartment, your bed bugs might get into your place by simply crawling to it. They might, for instance, crawl out of the neighboring apartment’s door, across the carpeted hallway, and into your home. Or, they might travel in the cracks of the baseboard, allowing them to move from one apartment to the next while still escaping notice. 

Even if you don’t share any common indoor spaces (like a hallway) with your neighbors, sharing a wall is enough. If you live in a duplex or townhouse, bed bugs can travel through from one unit to the next. It’s not always clear exactly how bed bugs spread this way, but it’s most likely by finding small openings and cracks that allow them to get inside the walls. Once they’re in, they can crawl across pipes and electrical wiring and eventually find their way to your bedroom. 

Unlike termites, bed bugs won’t dig holes into your wall. But they’re really good at finding those little openings in what look to use like completely sealed walls. 

On People

It’s not only your neighbors you have to worry about – anyone who comes into your home could potentially be carrying bed bugs with them. 

As we saw above, bed bugs are really good at latching on to people and traveling around on them, and you can pick them up anywhere that other people sit or lay down. 

There’s a common but false belief that bed bugs only thrive in environments that are dirty. There’s a bit of truth to that, because an especially dirty or messy place makes it difficult to see a bed bug infestation until it’s gotten out of hand. But very clean spaces can still harbor bed bugs. That’s because they don’t feed on filth but on humans, even the clean ones. 

You can pick up bed bugs from another person’s home, from sitting in a taxi cab or riding on the bus, from sleeping in a hotel bed, sharing an office chair, flying in an airplane, or just about anywhere really. 

When you encounter a bed bug in the wild, it might find its way onto your clothes, especially on the cuffs of your socks or pants, the seams of your jacket, or even the eyelets on your shoes. They’re also quite fond of crawling into bags, purses, backpacks, and suitcases, especially if they’re left in an infested bedroom for at least a few hours.

Some people worry that bed bugs might also hide in their hair, but that is much less likely. They like to feed on human blood, but the scalp is not an ideal place to do that. Your hair, then, isn’t a potential bed bug nest so much as a deterrent. When they’re not feeding, bed bugs are far more likely to retreat to one of their hiding spots rather than staying somewhere on your body.

Used Items

Bed bugs don’t just hide under mattresses. They can find their way into dresser drawers, folded clothes, and even inside books. Buying used items without properly inspecting them for the presence of bed bugs or bed bug eggs is another way of spreading the infestation into your living space. 

How Do Bed Bugs Spread?

Another important thing to know about bed bugs is how they spread throughout your house. If you have an infestation, you want to keep that infestation contained to one spot, or at least one room. Otherwise, you’ll have a more difficult getting rid of them and may have to call in an exterminator instead of taking care of the job yourself. 

Bed Bugs Breed Very Quickly

Bed bugs multiply very quickly, so it doesn’t take long before two or three bed bugs in one corner of a room turns into a small infestation of them.

Female bed bugs lay between one and five eggs every day, and it only takes between six to ten days for those eggs to hatch. That means every week or so, you might have up to five extra bed bugs for every female bed bug already occupying your home.

Bed Bugs Don’t Starve Easily

Bed bugs feed on human blood, and they’ll tend to cluster in places where humans sleep. But they don’t need to feed as often or as regularly as you would think. While bed bugs will feed every day if they have a food source available (unfortunately, in this case, that means you), they can live for months without feeding again. 

That means they can spread to parts of your home that don’t have a lot of activity and few opportunities to feed, like a guest bedroom that is only seldom used. 

They Are Discreet

One of the bed bug’s biggest advantage is how small and discreet they are. When they do crawl, they tend to travel away from sight, in cracks, in seams, and in joints that are not perfectly flush. They might not be fast, but by traveling out of sight, they can crawl quite a distance over time without being seen. 

That, combined with how infrequently they have to feed, means that they can simply crawl to a new location in your home and take up residence there without anyone noticing them.

Moving Items from Room to Room

Moving your stuff from room to room is another way to spread bed bugs throughout your home. If you leave a bag or purse in an infested bedroom and then move it to a different location, there’s a decent chance that you moved some bed bugs along with it.

It’s the same for clothing that had been left on the floor or on the bed, or items that were kept in the dresser with bed bugs (they sometimes hide in the corners of the drawers).

If you want to wash your clothes to get rid of the bed bugs that might be hiding in the seams and folds, make sure you handle it carefully. Place the clothing in a plastic bag before taking it out of the room and then wash and dry it on high-temperature settings. Unless you bag the clothes while you carry it through your home, you might just be giving the bed bugs a ride to a new location.

Vacuum Bags

If you vacuum a carpet or rug that houses bed bugs, they can live inside the vacuum bag or the container that holds all the debris. Then, they can crawl out of the vacuum cleaner and make their way to a new part of your home.

If you vacuum while you know or suspect you have bed bugs, you can take precautions to prevent them from spreading. If you have a vacuum bag, seal it as soon as you’re done vacuuming. If your vacuum has a compartment for the dust and dirt instead, empty it into a garbage bag as soon as you’re done. Then, take the bagged contents and dispose of them outdoors. Bed bugs can crawl through very tiny spaces, so leaving the bag indoors gives them an opportunity to crawl out and cause more trouble for you.

Your Clothing

Bed bugs latch on to people’s clothing – often their shoes, socks, and the hem of their pants. If they cling to your clothes while you’re in bed or sitting in an armchair, you might end up spreading them simply by walking through your home.

How to Reduce the Chances of Bringing Bed Bugs Home

So, now you know where bed bugs come from, how they get into your home, and how they spread once they’re inside. Once you’ve got them in your home, they can be hard to exterminate. Even the most effective treatments can require multiple applications followed by months of monitoring the infested space for new bed bug activity. 

Instead of going through all that trouble, it’s best to take measures to protect your home from these invaders.

There’s no way to absolutely guarantee you won’t get bed bugs. They’re sneaky and they can be picked up almost anywhere and brought in by almost anyone. But here are some tips that will increase your chances of keeping your home bed-bug-free.

Inspect All Second-Hand Items Carefully

As mentioned above, second-hand items, especially those that might be found in the bedroom (like a bed frame or a dresser) could be hiding bed bugs. 

Before you purchase and bring these items into your home, give them a good inspection. Turn on your smartphone’s flashlight feature to get a really good look. Pay special attention to small corners, joints, and cracks. Look not only for bed bugs, but for their droppings and those tell-tale rust-colored stains.

Handle All Secondhand Clothing and Bedding Carefully

If you buy second-hand clothing, sheets, or blankets, make sure you place them in a plastic bag (a trash bag will do) and tie it shut before you walk into the door with them. That will trap any bed bugs or bed bug eggs. Only untie the bag when you get to your washing machine. Dump the clothes or bedding into the washing machine and run wash it on a high heat setting. That won’t always kill all of them, so run it in the dryer at high heat, too.

How to Handle Guests

When guests come into your home and you’re worried about them bringing in bed bugs, it’s a good idea to be discreet. There’s a bit of a stigma associated with bed bugs because many people still believe they thrive in filthy conditions. Instead of insulting guests by asking if they have a bed bug issue, follow these discreet steps.

First, ask them to remove their shoes and keep them by the front door, since bed bugs sometimes hide in footwear. 

Be careful with your guest’s items, as well. Don’t place their bags or coats on the bed. A closet or simply leaving them by the door is a better option. 

Clear out your coat closet. Once your guests take their coats from it and leave, inspect the closet for any bed bugs, or vacuum it to be on the safe side.

Be Careful When Traveling

Bed bugs often spread because people travel and stay in accommodations that have a hidden infestation. If you’re staying in a hotel or a motel, you should take a few basic precautions to make sure you’re not bringing home any unwanted guests. 

If there’s a bed bug problem in the room you’re staying in, it will probably be concentrated on the bed. So make sure you keep your luggage, coat, and other belongings off of it. 

Take some time to inspect the bed. Lift the mattress and look at the box spring. You can even shine a light behind the headboard to see if there’s any bed bug activity going on against the wall. 

When you return, wash all the clothes you brought with you on your trip (again, on high heat followed by a high heat cycle in the dryer). That way, if you did happen to carry any bed bugs in with you, you can kill them before they can reproduce and cause a problem.

Summary

There’s no 100% effective way of preventing bed bugs from entering your home, but there are a few basic steps you can take to make it harder for an infestation to take hold in your place. 

Know the signs of bed bugs and how to identify them. Knowing what to look for is critical. Whether you’re inspecting your own living quarters, a hotel room you’re staying in, or some second-hand items you’re purchasing, being aware that there is a bed bug issue allows you to take all the right steps. 

If you have bed bugs in the home, make sure not to spread them throughout your home. Don’t transport any items from room to room unless you have to. And if you do, put them in a plastic bag.

Also, remember that guests in your home could bring in bed bugs. Do what you can to keep their outdoor clothes and bags in one spot that you can inspect and clean once they leave.

Bed bugs are difficult to spot and hard to get rid of. But if you stay two steps ahead of them at all times, you can save yourself a lot of trouble.