Bed Bugs, Your Mattress, and Your Sleep

Young woman changing bedsheets at home

“Good night, sleep tight— don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

I think we’ve all heard this rhyme before. It may seem cute at first, but to anyone who’s dealt with a bed bug infestation, it’s anything but.

Not only are bed bug infestations difficult to contain and eliminate, bed bugs are considered a public health concern by the Center for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Health & Human Services. The bed bug population had a notable decline in the latter half of the 20th century but is now increasing at a rapid rate.

There are many ways that an infestation can temporarily wreak havoc on your quality of life, your sleep being a big part of that. Thankfully though, there are ways to end infestations or even prevent them from occurring in the first place.

What Are Bed Bugs?

Bed bugs, or Cimex lectularius, are tiny brown insects with flat, oval-shaped bodies. While very small, they are visible to the naked eye. They are pests that generally feed on humans— or rather, their blood— leaving behind itchy bites, as well as other annoying indications of their presence.

It’s important to note that there are a number of insects that share this same basic appearance— so it is crucial to know whether you’re identifying bed bugs correctly, or if you’re dealing with a different bug entirely.

It’s also important to keep an eye out for bed bug eggs, as well as young bed bugs, called nymphs. A bed bug egg is about the size of a pinhead and white in color, while a bed bug nymph is more translucent, and can vary in size as it approaches adulthood.

While bed bugs are generally considered a “year-round” pest— meaning infestations can occur any time of the year— they do tend to be more active during warmer months. People tend to travel more when the weather is pleasant, but so too do the pests. If you stay or visit a place with bed bugs, you may unknowingly be transporting some unwanted hitchhikers on your clothes, luggage, or other belongings.

Thankfully, there are steps you can take to prevent bringing bed bugs home from your travels— more on that later.

How to Know if You Have Bed Bugs

Even if you know what you’re looking for, it can be difficult to spot bed bugs, especially since they’re very good at staying hidden. If possible, it’s best to catch an infestation early to better contain it and make it easier to eliminate.

There are physical signs of bed bugs to keep an eye out for, which can include red or rust-colored stains on surfaces, indicating crushed bugs or the remains of their blood meals. The presence of eggs, shedded skins and shells, and live bugs are also signs of a potential infestation. Bite marks can be an indicator of bed bugs as well, but this can be unreliable since their bites are similar to those of other insects, as well as some rashes.

Common hiding places for bed bugs can include:

  • The mattress and box springs, including mattress seams, piping, and tags
  • Cracks and crevices in walls, bed frames, and headboards
  • In the folds of fabric, including curtains, bedsheets, and cushions

Finding these infested areas is vital to containing the spread, as is familiarizing yourself with what you may be up against.

Common Myths About Bed Bugs

There are a lot of myths surrounding bed bugs, but it’s important to note that while some can be considered false, there is truth in many of these claims.

One common myth revolves around whether or not bed bugs and their eggs can be seen by the naked eye. We’ve debunked this one already— it can be tricky because they’re so small, but yes, they can be seen unaided.

Another myth is that bed bugs only live in dark, dirty places— this too, is false. Bed bugs are attracted to environments where they can readily feed and reproduce, regardless of how clean it is. And while bed bugs hide in the dark, they can still bite if there is light present.

One myth that is true, however, is that bed bugs can live for months without feeding. While they typically feed every five to ten days, they can survive for quite a while between blood meals.

Another myth is that pesticides are effective in ending a bed bug infestation— it’s actually difficult to confirm or debunk this one. While pesticides can be an effective way to address an infestation, they are not the “be all, end all” approach. In fact, some bed bug populations have developed a resistance to pesticides, rendering certain approaches ineffective.

As a side note, pesticides can be detrimental to human and animal health as well, so it’s important to consider a variety of techniques if you or someone you know is currently handling an infestation.

Many more myths exist about bed bugs, and it’s important to be able to distinguish between truthful information and any falsehoods that can prevent you from ridding yourself of this nuisance.

How do Bed Bugs Affect Sleep?

I mentioned earlier that bed bugs are considered a public health issue. While these pests have not been known to transmit diseases, they can have other negative effects on a person’s health and wellbeing, including how we sleep at night.

Possibly the most obvious effect would be their bites— while small bite marks are common, some people may have no reaction at all. In more worrisome cases, people can have potentially severe allergic reactions to bed bug bites, as well as additional infections from their bodies responding to the bite.

As well as physical reactions, infestations can have an impact on our mental health. Anxiety and insomnia can be unfortunate developments following an infestation, as well as behaviors such as hypervigilance in an effort to keep the bugs away. 

According to a study about the Psychological Effects of Bed Bug Attacks, the emotional trauma following an infestation can even suggest posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some people. However, further research is needed to determine to what extent PTSD can occur following an infestation.

One thing’s for sure though— bed bugs are bad news for your sleep and for your peace of mind.

How do Bed Bugs Get Into Your Mattress?

Bed bugs can find your mattress in a number of ways. One of the most common ways is being directly transported on soft surfaces including clothing, bedding, or luggage, but they are also mobile enough to make their way to your mattress if they are provided another entrance to your sleeping area.

While simple precautions can prevent transportation of bed bugs— more on that shortly— there are other options available for those who want to ensure extra protection for their homes and their beds.

Are There Mattresses that Resist Bed Bugs?

Unfortunately, no mattress is completely immune to a bed bug infestation. However, some materials can make it more difficult for them to invade your sleeping space. And while they can still inhabit the surrounding area, bedbugs cannot live in mattresses made of dense materials such as foam or latex.

If you are curious about the best memory foam or latex mattresses, check out my recommendations.

Are There Protective Mattress Covers or Sheets that Resist Bed Bugs?

A mattress encasement is an effective and inexpensive way to protect your mattress against not only bed bugs, but also dust mites, and accidental exposure to fluids and liquids. Different covers exist depending on the types of coverage you need, and many are machine washable.

Again, these won’t make your sleeping area immune to bed bugs, but they will keep them out of your mattress.

Tips for Avoiding Bed Bugs

Dealing with a bed bug infestation can be overwhelming, but there are many small steps you can take to ensure that bed bugs never make it into your home. Some of these include:

  • Be cautious of secondhand furniture, and always check pieces thoroughly before bringing them home
  • Cut down on the clutter to make sure bed bugs have fewer places to hide
  • Vacuum often, to pick up any bugs that may have made it inside

If you are concerned about bed bugs in hotel rooms, there are some precautions you can take there as well.

First and foremost, never settle into a room until you’ve checked for bugs. Place your luggage in the bathroom, and take this opportunity to check the mattresses and bedding, as well as the box spring. Continue to check any nooks and crannies in your room until you confirm there are no pests— if any are present, contact the front desk immediately and request another room.

Even if your room is free of bed bugs, it’s a good idea to store dirty laundry in a large plastic bag. This further reduces the chance of pests finding those items and making their way into your home.

Conclusion: How to Get Rid of Bed Bugs

Unfortunately, even with proper precautions or hygiene, infestations can still happen. While it’s not easy to end an infestation, there are different options available depending on the severity of the situation.

Do It Yourself (DIY) Bed Bug Treatment 

One of the most common misconceptions about having bed bugs is that you have to throw away your mattress and bedding— this is generally not the case, not to mention that discarding infested belongings can potentially spread the infestation to others. DIY solutions for treating a bed bug infestation are available, and they can be effective depending on the size and severity of the problem.

The EPA recommends the following steps when treating an infestation, whether on your own or using a professional service:

  • Identify the problem
  • Develop a strategy
  • Prevent the infestation from spreading
  • Prepare for treatment
  • Kill the bed bugs
  • Evaluate and prevent

Be sure to vacuum often while treating an infestation, and empty the vacuum after each use. Be sure the contents are sealed well, and immediately throw them out in an outdoor garbage receptacle.

When preparing to kill the bed bugs in your home, it’s vital to ensure that the methods used are safe, legal, and effective. Non-chemical options such as heat treatment kill bed bugs by raising their body temperature to a degree that they won’t survive— about 113 degrees Fahrenheit. However, be sure the heat reaches all affected areas, otherwise bed bugs can survive the high temperature and continue to thrive.

A pressurized household steamer is another option— these generate steam that is over 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and will kill the bugs on contact. These are especially effective in cracks, crevices, carpets, and furniture. I like this steamer, and it has a 4.5 star rating on Amazon. Make sure to vacuum again when you finish steaming a room. 

If your clothes or bedding have been in an area that was exposed to bed bugs, put them in the dryer on high heat— around 120 degrees Fahrenheit— for around 30 minutes. This should kill any bugs on them.

Most infested items, including furniture, can be treated to kill any bed bugs living on them. However, items that cannot be treated must be discarded responsibly to prevent others from bringing the items into their homes and spreading pests further. 

Commercially available pesticides for bed bugs are also an option, but should only be used with extreme care. I’ve already mentioned that some bed bug populations are resistant to pesticides, as well as to consider you and your family’s health before using them. Not only that, but improper use can also result in fires or explosions. If you’re not sure about using pesticides yourself, it may be a good idea to leave their use to professional services.

When It’s Time To Call The Professionals

While there are plenty of do-it-yourself options for containing an infestation, there may be a point where it is too much for you to handle, and it becomes necessary to enlist in professional pest control. They too will have a number of options available to best suit your needs, whether through chemical or non-chemical options.

In any situation, always stay calm and take your time considering your options. Bed bugs can be a maddening and expensive pest if they find their way into your home, but the right precautions can really go a long way in preventing them from taking away your peace of mind and disturbing your sleep.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM

The Sleep Doctor

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Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!