11/16/2009 06:42 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Quickie on Bed Bugs

Now, this blog doesn't quite fit my usual mold of ruminations on emotional health, introspection and personal growth--"living consciously", as I like to summarize. But I couldn't very well sit by and not tell this gruesome tale. Therefore, I present you with a "quickie" article on the terrifying BED BUG!!

While we've all been worrying about health hazards of the porcine order, these pestilential critters have quite literally made themselves at home: in your home (and your bed), as a matter of fact. Though they only grow the size of your pinky nail (somehow, 'only' seems out of place there), bed bugs are gearing up to take America by storm. In the past few years alone, incidence of bed bug infestations are up by 500%.

When I got a call from my landlord letting me know our building was under attack, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Just in case you think you're immune, I live in a perfectly respectable apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. I had no prior incidence of infestations. After a bad experience involving ants and an uncovered pie one year in Maine, I don't even leave food out. And yet, it seemed an upstairs neighbor had a confirmed case of bed bugs, and all residents of the floors two below and two above needed to be inspected.

At first I laughed. To be entirely honest, I didn't think bed bugs were real: they just seemed to fit so perfectly into the category of scary creatures your mean older brother/uncle/cousin made up to terrify you as a small child. But make no mistake--they are quite real, and quite justifiably terrifying.

According to a discussions at a recent summit held by the EPA, US bed bug outbreaks have tripled since 2005, and exterminators in all 50 states are dealing with them. And it seems bed bugs are totally undiscerning. It doesn't matter if you live in an immaculate mansion or a pigsty: if there's a warm, dark hiding place, bed bugs will find it.

This is where it gets totally science fiction-y: these small, brown, flattened bugs travel via cable networks and phone lines, and any wires running throughout a home or building. Ventilation systems, pipes, etc are also fair game. They can even arrive in a friend's pocketbook, suitcase, jacket pockets, etc--anything that's spent enough time in an infested space for bed bugs to locate its various hiding spots. (That coveted antique dresser might not look so tempting now.) And once they make their way into your home, they'll scurry to the closest dark spot and lie in wait. Then, while you're sleeping, they suck your blood.

I thought about putting an exclamation point there, but didn't want to seem hysterical. But can you believe that?!? They actually drink blood to survive, and prefer the human variety. Because they are best able to feed at night while their victim sleeps, the greedy little creatures tend to binge, taking three bites per excursion--"breakfast, lunch, and dinner," according to doctors--so be on the look out for bite patterns. Wow. I feel like Stephenie Meyer...or R.L. Stine.

While bed bugs don't transmit disease, their bites can become infected, leaving itchy, raised red welts behind. Adult bed bugs can live anywhere from six to 12 months, allowing infestations to grow exponentially, and last a very long time if left untreated. Badly infested rooms have a distinctive "sickly sweet" odor that is the effect of scent glands on the insects. EWWW.

So why the massive outbreak now? Fifty years ago, bed bugs were thought to have been totally eliminated. It appears changes in the kinds of pesticides we use (including the move away from DDT towards less toxic chemicals), in combination with increased resistance by bed bugs to extermination, has confronted homeowners around the country with a whole host of the uninvited.

Once I realized how dire the situation was, I immediately called an exterminator. Fortunately, I was bed bug free. Sigh of relief.

Pest control doused my apartment with some kind of "preventative" treatment, but the most effective things I can do to keep bed bugs at bay are to limit the ways they could gain entry and eliminate any hiding spots they could find once in my home. Garlic and wooden stakes are no good to you here, but these are some of the tips and tricks I've scavenged that seem to work pretty well:

How to Tell if Your Home is Infested:
• Itchy welts, localized swelling on your skin (check for patterns of threes). By the time
you have bites, you have an infestation on your hands.
• Dried blood spots on the sheets.
• Molted skin, feces or eggs left by bugs around the bed.

How to Prevent Infestation:
• Keep house clutter-free: the fewer dark, warm hiding spots, the better.
• Vacuum frequently, making sure to get into all the nooks and crannies.
• Shrink-wrap your bed and box spring with plastic or a mattress cover to keep bed bugs
out, and suffocate any on the inside (be sure to vacuum your mattress and box spring
before encasing it).
• Wash bedding frequently in hot water to kill any bugs.
• To really kick bed bugs to the curb, you have to dismantle all their favorite hiding
spots. This means pulling drawers out of dressers, disassembling beds, etc.

What to Do if You Have an Infestation:
• Hire an exterminator. This is essential if your bed has been infested.

A little bit of shameless promotion for your benefit: "The Dr. Oz Show" this Friday (November 20, 2009) will discuss the latest in bed bug prevention, so tune in if you haven't had your fill.