A bedbug on its back, revealing the underside of its mouth parts. Photo by David Clement | University of Maryland
Alyssa gets eaten alive by mosquitoes every summer, so at first she didn't think the slew of bites cropping up on her arms and legs was anything unusual. But it didn't make sense when clusters of welts started appearing on an area mosquitoes never reach — her buttocks.
Only then did the 28-year-old Hoboken, N.J., resident suspect something far more revolting: Bedbugs were feasting on her flesh each night while she slept.
It is likely millions of people throughout the United States have made the same horrifying revelation in recent years as the wingless, apple-seed-size bloodsuckers have resurged with a vengeance, in private homes and public places alike.
Although Hoboken in just a stone's throw from New York City — the most bedbug-infested city in the United States, according to pest-control company Terminix — Alyssa felt alone at first in her fight against the ravenous creatures.
"I became totally paranoid," said Alyssa, who did not want her last name revealed."It was a nightmare. I could hardly sleep knowing they were coming out at night."
A nuisance to humans since prehistoric times, bedbugs were largely eradicated by pesticides after World War II. They have rebounded because of greater global travel, urban sprawl and pesticide resistance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While they are usually found hiding in and around bed frames and mattresses, bedbugs are quite mobile and can hole up in furniture, curtains, carpet edges, lamps and switch plates.
Their ability to stow away in luggage is probably what led to Alyssa's infestation, which occurred just after she and 15 friends rented a beach house during the summer of 2008. One friend saw a bedbug at the beach house, prompting the landlord to arrange a visit by an exterminator.
It wasn't enough.
Within weeks of returning home, Alyssa was wondering aloud to co-workers whether the increasing numbers of itchy red dots all over her body signaled something sinister such as hepatitis or shingles. Remarkably, bedbugs do not transmit any illnesses, though their bites can prompt allergic reactions.
Alyssa's primary reaction, however, was terror, which came when an exterminator announced the verdict after taking one look at her marks and finding a live bedbug in her bedroom.
"I never actually saw the live bugs," she said. "I saw eggs. They look like tiny pieces of rice with a black dot in the center."
Other evidence of infestation includes bits of molted bug skin and dark spots or stains on fabric, which is the bugs' dried excrement, according to Michael F. Potter, a professor and urban entomologist at the University of Kentucky.
To get rid of the pests, Alyssa needed to follow several steps. She took a day off from work to bag every article of clothing she owned and put them in her dryer on high heat. The exterminator sprayed her apartment with pesticides three times over the course of several weeks, which cost about $450.
Meanwhile, despite some embarrassment, she gradually told friends and co-workers, finding relief upon learning they had been plagued by bedbugs, too.
"I found it easier to tell people," Alyssa said. "I had to tell my boss because I needed to take personal time off from work, because I was just going crazy."
Bedbug victims can find the mental effects of infestation more insidious and longer-lasting than the physical ones. Along with her three college roommates, Megan McNeil of North Cambridge, Mass., went through the same arduous process Alyssa did to rid their four-bedroom apartment of bedbugs last month.
"Our exterminator was great. He definitely talked me down from the ledge," said McNeil, 23, who graduated from Emerson College, near Boston, last spring. "I think the worst damage bedbugs do is psychological. You will never look at hotel rooms or secondhand furniture the same way again."
While there's no surefire way to prevent bedbugs, there are ways to lower your risk. Experts recommend inspecting any hotel room before settling in, checking around the headboard and mattress seams for black spots, eggs and live bugs.
When returning from a trip, inspect your luggage and clothing as you unpack. Vacuum your suitcases thoroughly and wash all clothes in hot water or run them in the dryer on high heat, which will kill bedbugs.
The Mayo Clinic advises carefully inspecting secondhand mattresses or furniture before bringing them into your home.