Bedbugs aren't just in Paris: What to do if they come for you

France has a problem: bedbugs. The recent outbreak has captured government officials' attention, especially in the run-up to the 2024 Olympics, when millions of visitors are expected to descend on Paris. The deputy mayor recently warned that "no one is safe" from a bedbug infestation, fueling anxiety among residents of the French capital and people planning to travel there.

It's not just France that has an issue with the insects, which prefer to feed on human blood. They are a persistent problem all over the world, from the United States to Australia. And despite their name, the insects are not just found in the bedroom. In fact, they can be found just about everywhere.

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Here's what to know about bedbugs and how to check for an infestation.

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What are bedbugs?

Bedbugs are prehistoric parasites, evolving some 100 million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. "When dinosaurs died off, bedbugs did not," said David Cain, managing director of Bed Bugs Limited, a British company that battles the insects.

The bloodsucking organisms are incredibly resilient - with an "amazing ability to survive" and "spread pervasively," he added.

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How big are bedbugs, and what do bedbugs look like?

Adult bedbugs are on average five millimeters long - about the same size as an apple seed. They are flat with oval-shaped bodies and are usually brown or red in color.

Sometimes, the bugs take on a more balloon-shaped appearance, which can be a sign of a recent blood meal.

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Where are bedbugs found?

Bedbugs have long been "a significant public health issue," according to the journal Diagnostics, which recently noted that cases have been reported in 135 countries worldwide.

Bedbugs can lurk on train seats and headboards and inside the walls of public buildings. They can be found behind picture frames, inside plug sockets and under armrests. They can embed in clothing, hitching rides on the pant legs and coats of unsuspecting commuters.

The crawling insects cannot fly or jump, and they do not typically live on the human body. In most cases, they feed and leave.

If you're lucky enough, a bedbug will finish its meal (feeding can take between three and 12 minutes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency) and skitter back into hiding. If it's not finished, you're likely to take it with you.

Bedbugs thrive during the warmer months of the year when they are more active, according to the British Pest Control Association. But temperature-controlled buildings also serve as a habitat where the insects can survive year-round.

The insects are more prevalent in densely populated areas where there is rapid resident turnover, like apartment buildings, hostels and holiday camps. In recent years, hospitals, hotels, libraries, prisons and offices from London to New York have reported outbreaks.

Cain, who spoke to The Washington Post from an airport while on his way to tackle an outbreak on a superyacht, said that the bugs exist in any place where people spend long periods of time stationary - including movie theaters and on airplanes. He said he would "absolutely be checking" his seat before takeoff.

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How do I know if I have bedbugs? What are the signs of bedbugs?

For some people, itchy spots and rashes that appear on the skin are the first sign they have been bitten by a bedbug. Though experts say it is not enough to rely on this as the only confirmation of an infestation, as many people do not respond to the bites. While the bites cause skin irritation, they do not usually lead to other health issues, according to Britain's National Health Service.

Bedbug bites can also present as sores caused by other insects, according to the EPA, making an infestation harder to identify and treat appropriately, giving the bugs more time to reproduce.

Other signs include fecal matter that can look like dark spots. These can be found anywhere a bedbug has been, including carpets and mattresses. The EPA recommends checking bedding for stains, eggs and tiny eggshells, along with shell casings that are usually pale yellow.

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How can I check if my hotel room has bedbugs?

Experts say it should only take five to 10 minutes to check a hotel room for bedbugs. Don't focus too much on the bedding, because it is frequently changed and washed. But check the mattress's top and bottom seams along the perimeter, lifting up the thick ribbon of material and looking at both sides. Bedbugs prefer rougher surfaces and dark hiding places, such as mattress seams, headboard cracks and box spring crevices.

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Where do bedbugs come from?

Infestations are not usually a reflection of poor hygiene, according to experts. Cases are usually driven by an individual coming into contact with the insects through travel or being exposed to items that are infested.

In the past three decades, infestation of bedbugs in human habitats "has drastically increased," along with a rise in concerns over the insects, according to the journal Diagnostics.

Cain explained that his caseload dropped during the coronavirus pandemic, which slowed global travel, but cases are crawling up once more. Many people who have contacted him about infestations have one thing in common, he said: They have all recently left the country. Events that bring in tourists from all over the world - like the Olympics - provide ripe conditions for bedbugs to feed and spread.

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How do I get rid of bedbugs?

Treating bedbugs is a "complex" procedure that can take weeks to months, the EPA says. Some people may require specialist help depending on the extent of infestation. "Your likelihood of success depends on many factors, including how many bed bugs you have, how much clutter is available for hiding places, whether your neighbors have bed bugs, and whether all residents of a house of building will participate," the agency said.

There are some relatively simple things the agency recommends. Washing clothes and bedding that have been exposed to bedbugs is a crucial part of the eradication process. Turning the dryer to high heat for 30 to 45 minutes is what experts deem a death sentence for the insects. Dry cleaning can also be another means of killing the bugs. Steam cleaners that reach at least 130 degrees (54 degrees Celsius) can help treat carpets, baseboards, bed frames and other furniture, it says.

The EPA recommends removing infested items and placing them in a sealed plastic bag until they can be treated. Items that cannot be treated, it adds, should be sealed for up to a year to ensure any active bugs are dead. EPA-registered pesticides specifically labeled for bedbug control can help, too.

Yet according to the journal Diagnostics, one of the challenges to controlling bedbugs can be resistance to different families of insecticide. Attempting to treat the problem on your own raises the risk of the infestation spreading to other rooms, according to the British Pest Control Association, though it notes that a full extermination is expensive and some people cannot afford it - one of many reasons cases continue to worsen.

"Not all infestations are the same," Cain said. "You do not need to burn everything and move out." In his experience in professional pest control, some infestations have fewer than 50 bugs. In extreme cases, there are thousands. Cain recalls a one-bedroom apartment he visited in London that he estimated had 150,000 bedbugs.

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How do I avoid a bedbug infestation?

Experts say there are several steps you can take to avoid bedbugs. They include placing luggage in another room and not onto a bed or nearby furniture. Checking seats and beds for signs of bedbugs before settling down to rest is another preventive technique. The EPA recommends making your bed "an island" - having it at least six inches away from the wall and not allowing covers to dangle onto the floor.

Other tips include vacuuming both sides of your mattress at least once a month and installing bedbug monitors.

The EPA recommends notifying your landlord if you are renting a property and find bedbugs, as they may have responsibility to help treat the problem. Reducing clutter in the home can help limit hiding places for the insects, as will sealing cracks and crevices. Investing in a mattress protector may also help.

People should also check secondhand furniture for signs of the bugs before taking the items home, the EPA notes, adding that people should also be vigilant when using shared laundry facilities.

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