Bed bugs are the common term for parasite insects with the scientific name Cimex lectularius, or Cimicidae. They are similar to fleas in that they feed on blood of mammals, including household pets and humans. In the wild, these insects also feed on birds and bats. They are small, growing to no more than a ¼ inch. Like many insects they can multiply quickly; a female can lay up to five eggs per day.
They can be very irritating pests, and make a bedroom unbearable, but they do not typically carry diseases the way ticks can. They do bite, and suck your blood while you’re asleep. This can result in a rash or allergic reaction, which doctors can treat with antihistimines and steroids. But the irritation can be extremely bad. An ABC report stated that 30% of people bitten by the pests are estimated to develop a reaction. In the 19th Century folk wisdom sometimes blamed bedbugs for transmittal of serious diseases but modern research has found they do not carry human diseases and pose little serious threat.
An experienced exterminator may be able to identify bed bugs or signs of bed bugs. A century ago, bed bugs were much more common. They found good places to nest in the sprung mattresses of the day. Advances in hygiene and materials reduced their prevalence. Curiously, bed bugs are eaten by mice. If you have mice in your house, you have a lower chance of bed bugs. When people took actions to get rid of mice, they inadvertently increased the odds of bed bugs. Today, with fewer house mice, there are fewer predators hunting out the bugs. Improvements in mattresses have made them less attractive to bed bug nests. However, bed bugs do live on. Sometimes they nest in mattresses, sometimes in the walls, sometimes in other furniture. Movie theaters and hospitals and thrift stores are also homes to bed bugs.
Sleep hygiene principles at one time (and to some extent today) included keeping the bed away from walls and clothing off the floors in an attempt to prevent insects from getting to the bed and the sleeper. Beds were also set with the posts in cans filled with oils.
In recent years bedbugs have come back and are more prevalent. The reason for this resurgence is not known. Interestingly, in the past bedbugs were more common in the homes of the lower socioeconomic classes. Now they are found everywhere.
Call an exterminator. Make sure any contractor you hire has at least some experience with bed bugs. Exterminators all have experience with ants and termites, but bed bugs are more rare and require a different type of treatment. You may wish to consider whether you want an exterminator’s type of pesticide treatment at all. They will be applying a pesticide inside your house, where you live, and some people are uncomfortable with that. Some exterminators also have the ability to cover furniture in a tent and fumigate. This method can remove the bed bug threat from quality furniture and still maintain the value of the furniture. For infested mattresses, though, it is sometimes not worth it and you may wish to just throw the mattress and box spring into the trash. (Don’t donate infested mattresses to charity; make sure they are disposed of.) Exterminators may tell you they use "natural" pesticides which are usually a class of chemical compound called pyrethrins, but these natural substances can be dangerous to people too.
Exterminators typically cost between $400 and $900 for one room. Multiple rooms will be more. Check the rules where you live, but landlords usually are obliged to provide reasonable accommodations for pest-free dwelling. Your local health agency or housing authority can provide more guidance. The National Pest Management Association says reports of bedbugs are up by a factor of 50 this decade. The EPA cautions against consumers indiscriminately applying pesticides to their mattresses, and there has been some talk recently of an emergency program to screen agricultural chemicals to see if they are safe to use inside the house. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control counted 111 Americans who got ill after exposure to areas that had been treated for bed bugs between 2003 and 2010, and there are surely many cases the CDC doesn't know about.
If you sleep in a bed with bedbugs, or even leave your suitcase open in an infested motel room, you risk bringing the bugs back with you. That part of the reason travel experts recommend washing the clothes you bring back in your suitcase. You also need to keep vigilant to see that no bugs are attached to your skin or scalp. Treatments for head lice are sometimes effective against bed bugs.
The University of Florida has a webpage with pictures of bed bugs - http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/urban/bed_bug.htm