Harold Harlan, entomologist
Bedbugs don’t live on people, but they can hitchhike around in suitcases, purses, backpacks and computer bags.
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msnbc.com
updated 7/27/2010 7:18:13 PM ET 2010-07-27T23:18:13

Forget about fictional, glitter-skinned teen vampires. You’re far more likely to have your blood sucked by bedbugs.

The tiny, sneaky insects are spreading so rapidly across the United States that almost no region or area is unbitten, a new survey suggests. Calls to exterminators nationwide about bedbugs are up 57 percent nationwide in the last five years, according to a new survey by the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky. More than 95 percent of 519 U.S. exterminators participating in the survey reported finding at least one bed bug infestation in the past year.

“Most cities have bed bug problems today,” says Michael F. Potter, University of Kentucky professor of entomology and one of the co-authors of the study. "Any place you have a lot of people, or a lot of movement of people, you have bedbugs."

The study, the first comprehensive industry report specifically on bedbugs, supports findings cited in Congress’ “Don’t Let the bedbugs Bite Act of 2009” that bed bug populations in the U.S. have increased by 500 percent in the past few years.

The number of exterminators reporting doing over 100 bed bug jobs a year increased more than three-fold, from 6 percent in 2008 to 20 percent just two years later, the new survey found. Seven percent reported doing more than 500 bed bug jobs in the past year.

Bloodsuckers: What you need to know about bedbugs

Turning up in surprising places
Increased travel, immigration and resistance to available insecticides are often blamed for the onslaught, although some experts also point to bans on more potent insecticides due to environmental concerns.

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency denied a request by the state of Ohio to kill bedbugs with propoxur, an agricultural and industrial pesticide, citing risks of exposure to children. There were about 4,000 reports of bedbugs in Ohio in 2009, up from zero just a few years ago.

Despite several widely reported closures of retail stores and office buildings in New York City, infestations are still far more common in apartments and condominiums, single-family homes and hotels and motels. Yet they're also turning up in some surprising places, such as public transit, laundromats and movie theaters.

The real culprits behind the bed bug march across the U.S. are the high cost of eradication, along with lack of awareness, according to Richard Cooper, an entomologist who serves on the New York City Bedbug Advisory Board and is vice president of BedBug Central, a company that provides educational resources to the public.

“There are still an amazing number of people that think bedbugs are some kind of folklore,” he says. “Or, if they do know about them, they think it’s due to poor hygiene, or it’s a problem that only affects the lower classes.”

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In fact, prior to 2006, bedbugs were mostly found in upper end hotels in business and leisure travel destinations such as New York, Boston, Orlando and San Francisco, Cooper says.

Hidden, until it's too late
From there the stealthy bugs took hold and spread. bedbugs don’t live on people, but they can hitchhike around in suitcases, purses, backpacks and computer bags. Because they hide during the day and feed on you painlessly while you sleep, they are very difficult to detect.

In addition, it takes about a week before an allergic reaction to the bites appears, so it can be hard to know exactly where the encounter took place. Roughly 30 percent of people living with infestations don’t develop an allergic reaction until being attacked multiple times, researcher Potter says. And since people simply aren't expecting them outside urban areas, it can take while to identify bedbugs as the cause.

That gives the pesky insects a three- to four-month head start on any efforts to control them, a significant lead for critters who lay lots of eggs and whose eggs hatch in about two weeks.

Getting rid of bedbugs is difficult even for professionals, who rate them far more difficult to deal with than ants, termites or cockroaches. Effective treatments are available, but they're expensive and time-consuming. A thorough inspection to detect bedbugs can involve specially trained dogs, followed by an application of pesticide and then a heat or cold treatment to kill eggs, which no chemical can currently do. The cost can be anywhere from $800 to $1,200 or more for a one-bedroom apartment, a steep price tag in the midst of a tough economy.

The result, says Cooper, is that bedbugs are “rapidly reservoiring” in lower-income communities.

“It’s bad news for the country,” he says.

'Brink of sanity'
So far, there is no concerted government effort to control the pests. Some cities, such as San Francisco, have put landlord education programs in place and many others have formed committees.

Since bedbugs are not seen as disease vectors, the Centers for Disease Control has declined to jump into the fray, although some experts feel they should.

“The biggest factor is mental health,” says Missy Henrikson, vice president of public affairs for National Pest Management Association and a co-author of the report, “They are so difficult to get rid of that it creates a real fear factor. People experience excessive worry. It drives them to the brink of sanity.”

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Photos: Strangers in the night

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  1. Sleeping with the enemy

    Bed bugs are small wingless insects that feed solely upon the blood of warm-blooded humans and animals. They are about 6-10 mm in length. (Harold Harlan, entomologist) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Itchy and scratchy

    A person being repeatedly bitten by bed bugs can be very uncomfortable, develop lots of reddish, itchy welts and often have difficulty sleeping. "The more bugs present, the more bites they inflict, and the worse the problems usually become," says entomologist and bed bug expert Dr. Harold Harlan. "Also, some people can be significantly affected by the social stigma of having a bed bug infestation." (Harold Harlan, entomologist) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Black spots

    "The most obvious sign of bed bugs are small blackish spots -- or fecal spots -- that look either like pepper of dried blood," says Dr. Dini Miller, a Virginia urban pest management specialist and professor. "It's a sign that bed bugs have digested a blood meal and excreted it right out." (Harold Harlan, entomologist) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Poised to strike

    Bed bugs pierce the skin of the host, and inject a fluid which helps them obtain food. This fluid causes the skin to become swollen and itchy. (Harold Harlan, entomologist) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Severe infestation

    This photograph of the underside of a mattress box spring (courtesy of the Scherzinger Pest Control of Cincinnati, Ohio) shows a severe infestation. "The white flaky paper-y things are shed bed bug skin," says technical director and entomologist Bery Pannkuk. (Scherzinger Pest Control ) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Bugged out

    These bed bugs (and fecal smears) were found on a cloth mattress protector. Mattress protectors may not completely protect a bed. An adult bed bug is resilient, often able to survive for months without a meal, so infestations sometimes require multiple exterminations. (Scherzinger Pest Control ) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. They only come out at night...

    The tiny vermin avoid light and attack in the middle of the night. They hide behind headboards or in mattress seams during the day. When checking for bed bugs, experts also suggest looking closely at mattress tags and box springs. (Scherzinger Pest Control ) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Not just on beds

    The name "bed bug" is somewhat of a misnomer because they do not only live in beds. They can also be found along the edge of carpets, on wooden surfaces, on upholstered furniture, and in this case, within an electrical outlet. (Scherzinger Pest Control ) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Making a comeback

    A U.S. Congressional report in 2009 found that bed bug populations increased 500 percent across America in the past few years. (Harold Harlan, entomologist / Harold Harlan, entomologist) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Bed bugs biting

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