The Bedbugs Are Coming. Are You Ready?

Changlu Wang, an urban entomologist at Rutgers who specializes in urban pest control, shares how to prevent, treat, and eradicate the shudder-inducing bedfellows from your home

Illustration by Justin Renninger

Bedbugs are becoming increasingly common and are starting to show up in more places than nasty hotel rooms. Just last week, a woman reported being bitten at the AMC Empire 25 theater in Times Square and experts warn that they’re on the rise in cities across the US. We talked to Changlu Wang, an urban entomologist at Rutgers who specializes in urban pest control, for the scoop on the bed bug situation in Philly and what we can all do to avoid becoming a nighttime buffet.

Q: What is the bedbug situation in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia right now? Do we have it as bad as other states?
A: Just like any in other major city, I think the cases are increasing, slowly but steadily. The number of cases will be increasing in the next decade or maybe longer.

Q: Why are they on the rise?
A: First, it is very difficult to control [bed bugs] and secondly, many people are unaware of the bedbug situation so they spread unintentionally. For example, furniture, clothing, traveling… all these cases can help spread bed bugs.

Q: How can you tell if you have bedbugs in your home or if they’re in your hotel room?
A: Most people first notice bed bugs when they start [feeling] itchiness from the bites, the red welts on the skin. Maybe they initially thought leas or mosquitoes, then they realize they have bedbugs. Sometimes you will see black spots on the sheets, that’s feces, excreted by bedbugs. Or maybe they see actual bedbugs crawling on the bed or crawling on their clothing. But mostly it’s the bites.

Q: What are some ways to prevent getting bedbugs in your house?
A: There are number of ways. First, you don’t want to accept any used furniture unless you are absolutely sure you know it’s pest free. A lot of used furniture … say it’s free furniture on the street or somebody donated it to you [can be infested]. That’s one very common reason.

Another way [to prevent picking them up] is if you’re at somebody’s house for only a short time, avoid touching the sofa or any of the host’s furniture. Just stand if you can. I hear many stories from offices, in-home care [givers], and nurses who have been to many homes and they are afraid of sitting on the furniture because the furniture may be infested. Another way to prevent [bedbugs] is that if you think you may be infected when you get home, take off all your clothing and put in the washer.

Q: Once you get bedbugs in your house why is it so hard to get rid of them?

A: It is very, very difficult because they hide in different places. They are very hard to find and also harder to [kill] because it’s really not very safe to apply chemicals on a bed or on a sofa because they’re in contact with your skin. In fact, even with all the chemicals available they’re not very effective because they are also designed to be low toxicity, so they don’t pose potential risks to humans. Unfortunately, they’re also not very effective against the bed bugs. So, that’s the main reason. It can take a inspect long time because bed bugs can survive for months without feeding

Q: If you realize you have them, what’s the best thing to do? Call an exterminator?
A: Yea, usually if you find a bed bug bite it is a good idea is hire somebody to check for you and to treat them for you. Of course, [it is expensive]. That’s very unfortunate. I mean, part of the reason is because it takes them a long time. Normally they take, probably, ten hours or longer to treat, that’s why they charge you a lot of money.

Q: Can you treat bedbugs yourself?
A: A lot of people try to do it themselves. If they want to do it themselves, they should do it systematically. Cover your mattresses and box spring, wash your bed linen, pillow cases, clothing, put a barrier on bed legs and sofa legs. There’s some products available you can buy from the web. Then you wash [bed linens] every week [until you no longer find bites]. Usually, I would say 80 to 90 percent of time the bed bugs are on the bed or sofa, so just pay attention to those areas.

Q: Why do they like the bed and the sofa so much?
A: They try to stay close to the human host, so if you stay on one bed all the time, that bed may be the primary location of the bed bugs. Or if you stay on the sofa all the time, then the sofa might be the primary location.

Q: How fast do they reproduce once you have them?
A: Usually a female will lay eggs every day, 1 to 5 eggs. They may lay an average of 200 to 300 eggs during their lifetime. One egg needs, depending on temperature, about a month to mature, to develop, and to hatch.

Q: Other than being disgusting, what kind of health hazards do bedbugs pose to humans? Can you get sick from them?
A: The main medical issue is the itchiness. The pain caused to the human. Some people may be sensitive to the bites, sometimes bites will last for a few months and itchiness for more than [a few] weeks. But the majority of the people will feel the bites easily and itchiness will last for two days, three days, that’s it. And then welts will disappear within a week. But on some they may last longer.

Q: Do they get on pets, too? If your animal has a bed should you check your dog’s bed and things like that?
A: That’s right. If the dog also rests beside your bed [or sofa], then the dog may also be infested. They may actually feed on the dog. Yes, it’s possible.

Q: How can you check for bedbugs in a hotel room?

A: First, use a flashlight to check the headboard, and the sides and bottom of the mattress for any signs of bed bugs, like black spots or bedbug skin. If you think you find them, just switch to a different room, just avoid.

Q: If one hotel room has bedbugs does it usually mean the entire hotel will?

A: No, no, that’s very, very rare. Most of the time, when in a hotel, when the owner finds a bedbug infestation they will take very rapid action because it will mean a lot of loss to them. They would pay a lot of money to eradicate the bedbugs. I think that’s not a big issue, but at least be careful about it.

Q: Recently, a movie theater in New York had bedbugs. Do you think that Philadelphians need to be careful when they’re going into movie theaters and places like that?
A: Right now, ya know, it’s very, very isolated. I would say in the future it’s likely that theaters may be infected, but just be careful. If you felt bites afterwards, then you might want to wash your clothing and then check the clothing to see if you have any bedbugs. I don’t think it’s necessary to avoid going there, but just be cautious.

Q: Is there anything else you think people in Philadelphia should know about bedbugs or be aware of?
A: Well, just pay attention and if you find any bites or itchiness, don’t assume they are mosquitoes—they may be bedbugs. I think that’s the advice for everybody to know. Bedbugs are increasing, [and everybody] should really know about this.