Not letting bedbugs bite becoming harder to do

COVINGTON — With the summer travel season officially over, returning vacationers may discover they brought home more than just a few souvenirs.

Reports of bedbugs in the U.S. are rising at alarming rates and there is not much that can be done to prevent their spread.

"Bedbugs are hitchhikers; they don't travel by themselves," said Jule-Lynne Macie, director of the Rockdale County Extension Service. "Hotels are the No. 1 place to pick them up. They can get in your luggage, you bring your luggage home and that's how they get started in your home. You just need one pregnant female."

Bedbugs are host-specific parasites. In other words, human bedbugs don't feed on bats and vice versa, Macie said. Bedbugs are nocturnal and are attracted to the carbon dioxide emitted when people sleep.

Where are they?

Macie said bedbugs like tight spaces and crevices, such as in the seams in bed mattresses, box springs, bed frames and headboards, which is where they get their name. However, they can also be found in any small area, like picture frames, alarm clocks, baseboards near carpet, nightstands, zippers of luggage and even pockets of jeans, she said.

"They'll find anywhere to hang out and not be found during day," Macie said.

Bedbugs, a common household pest for centuries, all but vanished in the 1940s and '50s with the widespread use of DDT. But DDT was banned in 1972 as too toxic to wildlife, especially birds. Since then, the bugs have developed resistance to chemicals that replaced DDT.

Many attribute the rise in occurrences of bedbugs to people traveling to the U.S. from Europe and other countries. Indeed, the cities with the highest reported incidences of bedbugs are major travel hubs, such as New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati and Chicago. In addition to homes, outbreaks have been reported in hotels, office buildings, movie theaters and clothing stores.

So far, however, Rockdale and Newton counties have largely escaped a major outbreak of bedbugs, although reports are increasing.

"While we cannot speak for the other counties in the metro Atlanta area, in our district (Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale counties) we have seen an increase in reports of bedbugs," said Alana C. Sulka, director of epidemiology and community health with the East Metro Health District. "We cannot say for certain whether this increase in reports is due to an increase in the actual numbers of bedbugs or the public being more aware and reporting findings to us."

Sulka said bedbugs do not carry diseases that are harmful to humans. However, some people may have allergic reactions to bedbug bites or develop infections where they have scratched the bites.

Can they be prevented?

Solutions to preventing bedbugs are scarce. Macie said people should avoid purchasing second-hand mattresses or bedroom furniture. The previous owners could have had bedbugs, which would then travel to the new home.

She said people could also buy cases to place over their mattresses and box springs. Those will keep any existing bedbugs in where they will eventually die from starvation.

"It's creepy, but usually it's not necessary to throw a mattress out," she said. "Bedbugs are not just in the mattress, so throwing it away will not solve the problem."

Since bedbugs are commonly found among travelers, Macie advises those who stay in hotels to take precautionary steps. First, she said, check beds for tiny blood or fecal stains, which would indicate bedbugs. If brown or red streaks are visible on the sheets, ask for a different room in a different part of the hotel, Macie said.

She also suggested placing suitcases on the metal luggage racks or on the linoleum or tiled floor of the bathroom.

Bedbugs can be killed with heat, so upon return from a trip, many experts advise to clean suitcases before they are brought in the home and immediately wash and dry in a high-heat dryer all clothing.

"Preventing bed bugs is more about avoiding places that have bedbugs," Sulka said in her e-mailed response to questions. "If you think you have stayed in a location with bedbugs, there are some steps that can be taken. Do not bring any luggage, clothing, etc. into your house until it has been inspected for bed bugs. Any clothing or bedding should be washed in hot water and dried at high temperatures. Vacuum frequently and immediately change the bag outside. Scrub down every surface to remove any eggs or other hiding places."

I've got them. Now what?

Local pest control companies are also experiencing an increase in the number of calls to help get rid of bedbugs

"We have had some increase in the past year, year and a half," said Brook Collins, owner of Bizzy Bee Exterminators in Oxford.

Collins, whose company serves homes and business from Atlanta to Athens and from Griffin to Milledgeville, said they have received calls from a number of single-family and multi-family residences and hotels.

"It's a much more detailed process for treating bedbugs because they are hitchhikers," he said. "They are very good at hiding and getting in cracks and crevices during the day and they come out at night. They are mostly attracted to the carbon dioxide emitted when we sleep and that's how they trace where you're at."

Collins said there is no repellent for bedbugs and the treatment is multifaceted.

The first thing that must be done, he said, is the homeowner needs to wash and dry all clothing, sheets and bedding. Homeowners should also clear out any loose items from the infected room, including under the bed, in the dresser and nightstand drawers, and remove all clutter.

"From there, it will require a good crack and crevice treatment throughout the entire area," Collins said. "We do offer fumigation services — we're one of the few in the Atlanta area that does — so we can treat furniture and mattresses through fumigation. Then we recommend the homeowner leave for the day, if not overnight."

He said the fumigation materials used could be harmful to young children or household pets during application, although they have no residual effects.

Collins said the success rate on the first round of treatments is low, so it likely will take multiple treatments.

To check the effectiveness of the treatment, Collins said they can use a carbon dioxide monitor that emits CO2 and attracts bedbugs.

"If you do have them, it's a long, tedious process to get rid of them, and it takes the cooperation of homeowner or the property owner and the pest control company," Collins said.

Is there any good news?

Since there is no way to really prevent bedbugs because they travel with people and feed on people, and cannot be thwarted with repellent, is there any good news?

"The one good thing, if there is a positive, is they're not known to transmit any diseases, unlike mosquitoes," Collins said.

Macie concurs.

"Bedbugs are not associated with diseases or being dirty," she said. "They're bites do itch and when you scratch them, you can develop an infection, but they're more of a nuisance and do not carry disease."

For more on bedbugs, see Jule-Lynne Macie's three-part "Indoor Outdoor" series in the Citizen beginning Thursday.

The Associated Press and Businessweek contributed to this article.