The first sign my family had bed bugs appeared on a random weekday morning, when I discovered a few raised red, itchy welts on my body. More appeared as the day went on. My husband and I marveled at how nasty they were and looked up at the ceiling for a rogue mosquito. He pitied me as I scratched them—one was almost as big as my palm—before heading out to the pharmacy for cream.
The next morning I had more. “Strange,” we said. ”Bed bugs?’ I asked. “I doubt it,” he said, still searching for the mosquito. But these bites felt different than mosquito bites—nastier, angrier. They were so itchy they hurt. And the way more appeared over time reminded me of some bites I got once while staying at hostels on a hiking route in Spain…
Spoiler: My husband was wrong. My bites were bed bug bites. We would eventually discover we had an infestation. And it SUCKED.
It’s honestly impossible to name the worst part: The horrifically itchy bites, the efforts required to see if we for sure had bed bugs, the stress of finding out we in fact did, the arduous process of trying to rid my home of them, the exorbitant cost of the whole thing, or the psychological impact of knowing bugs are coming out at night to feed on my and my children’s blood. One thing’s for sure: They’re more than just a nuisance and cause great stress and anxiety, especially if you’re already juggling parenting, life and work.
How to tell bed bug bites versus mosquito bites
Telling bed bug bites and mosquito bites apart is a tricky business, as they can look similar, and not everyone reacts to bed bug bites in the same way—if they do at all.
Bites from bed bugs may present as red welts, rashes, or blisters. Some might notice a red dot in the middle at the puncture site, which can be fluid-filled and slightly yellow. Frustratingly, this is how mosquito bites present on some people as well.
But the pattern of the bites offers a clue: Bed bug bites tend to appear in straight lines in groups of three or more (sometimes referred to as “breakfast, lunch and dinner”) or as clusters.
And then there’s the itch: mosquito bites are quicker to irritate the skin, and quicker to heal, while bed bug bites can take hours or even days to appear, and last much longer. Bed bugs are drawn to the CO2 released from humans breathing, so typically bite exposed areas on the arms, face and neck. And yet, they can burrow through clothing, so bites can also appear on the rest of the body. Some people report they get bitten under the elastic waistband of their PJ bottoms or underwear. (So, yeah, basically anywhere.)
In our case, I was the only one at home with symptoms. It wasn’t the only one bitten, but I’m the only one who reacted. Lucky me! Although I’m happy my kids weren’t suffering.
What do bed bugs look like?
Bed bugs, also known as cimex lectularius, are small, oval insects with six legs and two antennae. Adult bed bugs have flat bodies about the size of an apple seed. Unfed, they are a rusty brown color and after a meal they engorge and turn red-brown. Babies, or nymphs, are nearly colorless and can be mistaken for a fleck of dust.
They can fit into the tiniest of crevices—the width of a credit card—in mattresses, bed seams and headboards, as well as in flooring, baseboards, furniture, clothing and even electrical sockets. They can’t fly, and although they do sometimes crawl on floors, walls and ceilings, their nickname comes from their preference for living in and around beds—close to their human food source.
How to check for bed bugs
Good luck! Depending on the stage of infestation, detecting live bugs can be difficult. Not because they are invisible to the human eye—they’re not that small—but because they tend to come out to feed at night while you’re sleeping.
But it’s not impossible to find clues that they’ve been crawling around your bed. Here’s how to look and what to look for:
- Unless your bedroom is extremely well-lit, grab a flashlight to examine your sheets and pillowcases for tiny blood stains (produced by the puncturing of your skin).
- Also look for bug excrement—it will look like tiny dark brown dots—and feel for a sandy texture, which would be caused by tiny scraps of egg shells and shed skins. If you discover anything that looks like a grain of rice, it might very well be eggs or shells.
- Look closely at your mattress’s seams for signs of excrement and live bugs. Check the box springs and joints in wood frames, too, plus the headboard.
- Still nothing? Check bedside tables, books, phones and radios, the edge of the carpet/floor and skirting board, and even in electrical sockets (yep, seriously).
- Try setting an alarm and searching the bed sheets and seams at night, when bed bugs are likely to be more active.
Even with the most thorough search, you may never find a live bug. We never did, despite months of searching and examining the sheets several times a night. What we did find on the sheets was bed bug excrement, as well unusual debris which turned out to be shells.
How do you get bed bugs?
My family got them from, we eventually deduced, from a three-night stay at a cute little rural vacation rental. They tend to hitch a ride in luggage, backpacks, bags or other items placed on soft or upholstered surfaces. They even hide in the wheels of suitcases and the crevices of zips. As they live off human blood, they follow us to hotels and hostels, airports and even your local movie theatre. They can also come from used furniture, or from other infested areas such as a neighbouring apartment.
Are bed bugs dangerous to babies or kids?
The good news is bed bugs do not spread disease. But they are equal opportunity biters, meaning they’re just as likely to bite your baby or kids as they are you, and that can be upsetting for all involved, both physically and psychologically.
I’m sorry to report that having small children at home makes tackling an infestation enormously difficult. Not only is your time and attention already taken up, in my case, with a baby and a three-year-old, leaving you only little windows to deal with the situation, but children carrying items from one place to another and leaving clothes around the home can exacerbate the problem. Bed bugs can also make their way into plush toys, which is problematic. (See “How to get rid of bed bugs,” below, for how to handle this.) Care needs to be taken with clothes and uniforms, taking out washed clothes from sealed bags, or putting a worn uniform in a sealed bag until the next day.
Discussing the topic with your kids can also be tricky. One night, a bed bug crawling up my toddler’s back opened up a conversation about whether or not we kill them. (Normally I’d advocate for catch and release, but when it comes to bed bugs, sorry—they all need to die.) I told my daughter we don’t kill animals, but these bugs were in our home and shouldn’t be, so we had no choice.
She accepted this, but it was harder for her to accept the absence of any playdates either in our or a friend’s home for six long months, a precautionary measure we took so as not to spread the infestation. Thankfully though, she’s been oblivious to any stigma that might be associated with getting the bugs. She even taught her friends at daycare what bed bugs are! She was lucky not to have the bed bugs nest in her room, so didn’t suffer any bites, whereas her baby brother sadly did.
How to get rid of bed bugs
I won’t mince words: Bed bugs are tough to get rid of. If you suspect you have them, starting by looking for proof, as detailed above, and if you find anything suspicious, my advice would be to call a pest control company. You can DIY a bed bug problem, of course, but if you can find it in your budget to get help, do it. (Same theory as all those lice-removal companies. They don’t come cheap, but they’re the experts, and they fix the problem so much more efficiently than parents can do at home.)
Also, hot tip: If you’re going to use a pest-control firm, do your research and get recommendations. Don’t just hire the first company you call like I did, only for them to turn out to be substandard and make the situation worse by spreading the bugs throughout your home. (Yup, that happened.)
The options available to us were heat treatment and chemical fumigation. We found the former was too expensive, so we opted for a chemical fumigation. We respected the 12-hour margin before re-entering our home for the safety and well-being of our kids.
Ahead of the fumigation, on the advice of the company we hired, we washed and dried all our clothes (using our washer and dryer’s hottest settings), emptied the wardrobes, and finally did that Marie Kondo we’d been meaning to do for years. All old clothes, toys, and furniture were thrown away (sad but necessary), while other items were washed and dried, double-bagged and stored as far from the infected rooms as possible. We vacuumed almost daily, and emptied the bag and cleaned the filter every time. We considered also using insect sprays until we heard they will often just spread the bugs and push them into harder-to-reach crevices.
Getting rid of bed bugs doesn’t happen overnight . For my family, it was an enormous amount of hard work. It can also take a toll on physical and mental health, as I found. At my most stressed and anxious, I had to cling on to the belief that our home would be ours, just ours, again soon. And it was.