Bed bugs pandemic: Back-to-school dorm room pests?

Aug 25, 2010 at 3:47 p.m. ET

Bed bugs -- those tiny bloodsucking insects -- seem to be everywhere lately. They don’t discriminate between rich or poor, dirty or clean. While much has been written about specific incidents of bedbug infestations in high-profile offices and retail stores, many people don’t realize that these infestations are not only happening in New York and other major urban centers, but are also wreaking havoc in smaller towns and cities across the country. They're in student dormitories, too, putting a new spin on back-to-school preparedness.

Bedbug bites

New York recently announced it is launching a half-million-dollar campaign to rid the Big Apple of its bed bugs. The Don't Let the Bed Bugs Bite Act of 2009 notes that bed bug populations in the United States have increased by a whopping 500 percent in the past few years! Results of a study released by the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) and the University of Kentucky found that 95 percent of US survey respondents indicated that their companies have encountered a bed bug infestation in the past year. Check the for incident reports across North America.

What's behind the bed bug boom?

Some experts blame an increase in international travel, especially to and from Eastern Europe, where extensive infestations occurred during the Soviet era. Others say effective, long-lasting pesticides kept the problem at bay for decades, but a change in insecticide regulations has outlawed the chemicals and led to a resurgence.

"Although bed bugs are not known to transmit disease to humans, their bites do leave itchy welts on human skin and can cause an allergic reaction in some people," the NPMA says. "The emotional and mental toll of experiencing a bed bug infestation can be severe and should not be taken lightly."

Bed bugs hard to find -- and exterminate

Bed bugs can hide almost anywhere – walls, furniture, cushions, picture frames – but if you know what to look for, you can spot them. This is especially important as your kids move into college dorms or into new apartments or other housing for the school year. Visual inspections are the preferred method of determining if a bed bug infestation exists, according to NPMA survey respondents. Bed bugs are the size and color of an apple seed, like to travel and will hide in suitcases, boxes and shoes to be near a food supply.

Bed bug-tracking dogs have been trained, much as police dogs are to sniff out bombs and drugs, to find the pests, and are used by some extermination companies to pinpoint nests. For example, dogs helped clear hotel rooms for dignitaries coming to the recent G20 summit in Toronto.

How to get rid of bed bugs

To prevent bed bug infestations, consumers need to be vigilant in assessing their surroundings. Insight Pharmaceuticals offers a coupon at for $3 off a 5- or 10-ounce can of Pronto Plus, available in drug and food stores, for proactive spraying. Inspect your own home and your college-age children's housing as the school year starts and treat rooms with a product like Pronto Plus.

In addition, when returning from a trip, check your luggage and clothing. "If you think you may have a bed bug infestation, contact a pest control professional," the NPMA recommends. "This is not a pest that can be controlled with do-it-yourself measures."

More on bed bugs and the Big Apple

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With bed bug reports up 47 percent this year, New York has been scrambling to get the epidemic under control. Getting rid of bed bugs can take weeks and cost several thousand dollars. Mary Plummer and Bradley Gallo report on the city's newest solution.

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