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Pesky and Not Picky, Bedbugs Make a Comeback

They suck your blood in the middle of the night and vanish when the sun comes up. No, we are not talking about vampires. We're talking about bedbugs that make people want to itch their arms and legs off.

Mayhill Fowler first noticed the bite marks on her wrists and ankles several years ago when she was living in New York City. New ones showed up almost every morning, usually in groups of three.

"I found out later that this is typical," Fowler says. "'Breakfast, lunch and dinner' is what they call it. And they are very small and kind of hard little bites. You know how mosquito bites can be kind of big? These are kind of small, and they are very itchy."

After going through several tubes of anti-itch ointment, Fowler went to see her doctor.

"She didn't have a clue," she says. "She said maybe it was a nervous reaction." The doctor suggested that Fowler change her soap. But new soap didn't help.

Then one night, Fowler watched a blood-filled bedbug crawl out of her mattress. She called an exterminator and never slept in that bed again.

"I pictured them feasting on that mattress," Fowler says. "I was getting rid of that mattress — I didn't care what it cost. That's why there are credit cards."

Bedbug experts say she's not alone. Entomologist Michael Potter of the University of Kentucky puts it this way in a spooky-sounding Internet video: "I've been on bedbug infestations where people have been to four different dermatologists, and then you get to their home and you flip over the box springs and it's like the Boston Massacre. I mean, there's just thousands of bedbugs, and they never knew they were there."

Return of the Bedbugs

For a long time, the bedbugs weren't there. In the 1950s, exterminators armed with pesticides like DDT drove the parasites out of most of the houses in the country.

But then, 10 years ago, the bugs started coming back. Exterminator Richard Kramer says he found one of the first new infestations in Washington, D.C., in 1998.

"We discovered bedbugs in a hotel downtown," he says. "And ever since then, it's been exponentially increasing — that's the only way to describe it."

Kramer runs Innovative Pest Management, a small firm near Washington. He says he gets thousands of calls a year from people who have just found bedbugs.

The Nature of the Bug

First, he tells them not to panic. Bedbugs aren't venomous, they don't spread dangerous disease, and they aren't linked to filth or moral decay.

But Kramer won't deny that they are creepy.

"They live in your bed," he says. "I mean, having your wife in your bed, your husband in your bed — but having your bedbug in your bed?"

Kramer warns his callers that it can cost thousands of dollars to get rid of bedbug infestations. Exterminators often visit houses several times before they find all of the bugs and eggs. And when they do, they can't skimp on the chemicals.

"To be effective in controlling the bugs, you have to pretty much — I don't want to say you have to drown them, but you have to get them good and wet with the pesticides," Kramer says.

A Professional Solution

Kramer says popular over-the-counter bug killers — like fogs, traps and baits – don't work very well. Alternative approaches, like steaming, vacuuming and washing sheets, are hit-or-miss.

He says the best way to fight the bugs is to make sure they don't get into your house in the first place. When you travel, always look for brown dots – dried blood — on hotel sheets, and don't forget to check your luggage.

"I saw a suitcase one time in an apartment — couldn't find a bedbug on the bed, [but] looked at the suitcase [and] there had to be 200 bedbugs on this suitcase," Kramer says. "It's like they were catching the train. They found a way to get around."

That's a lesson Fowler's mother learned the hard way. After visiting Fowler's infested apartment in New York, Mom flew home to California. A few weeks later, she found some brown dots on her mattress.

"So she called me and said 'We have it. What do we do? What do we do?' " Fowler says, recalling her mother's call. "And she definitely traced it. She was like, 'Well, I put my suitcase up against your bed.' "

Fowler and her mother both got rid of their infestations, but not long afterward, Fowler's sister called to say that she was feeling itchy.

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John Nielsen covers environmental issues for NPR. His reports air regularly on NPR's award-winning news magazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. He also prepares documentaries for the NPR/National Geographic Radio Expeditions series, which is heard regularly on Morning Edition. Nielsen also occasionally serves as the substitute host for several NPR News programs.