No one would blame you for being afraid of bed bugs: They infest our most private spaces and feed on us when we’re vulnerable. But once you dispel the common myths surrounding the insects, they suddenly seem a lot less scary. Here’s what you need to know about how dangerous bed bugs really are, where they like to hide, and the best ways to get rid of them.
1. MYTH: THEY SPREAD DISEASE.
If you have a bedbug infestation, you’ll feel itchy, have trouble sleeping, or develop an allergic reaction to the bites. The psychological toll bed bugs take on people is also a real issue: Research has found that it’s common for people living with bed bugs to experience anxiety, depression, and paranoia. But compared to other blood-suckers like ticks and mosquitoes, bed bugs aren’t dangerous—they aren't known to spread any diseases to humans.
2. MYTH: THEY’RE TOO SMALL TO SEE WITH THE NAKED EYE.
If you’ve examined every inch of your mattress and still can’t find any unwelcome insect guests, you can relax a little bit: You would have likely seen any bed bugs that were lurking in the fibers (unless they're hiding somewhere ... more on that in a bit). It’s true that bed bugs are small—about the size of an apple seed—but they’re not so small that it’s impossible to see them with the naked eye. They’re normally flat, but when they’re engorged they’re even easier to spot. “When they are fed they look plump, like little sausages,” Virna Stillwaugh, an entomologist and pest control specialist who researched bed bugs at North Carolina State University, tells Mental Floss. But experts caution that bed bugs are difficult to distinguish from many other insects, so it’s best to get an expert for a positive identification.
3. MYTH: THEY ONLY LIVE IN BEDS.
The bed bug's namesake may be its creepiest hangout spot, but it isn’t the only place they're likely to lurk. They can be found in the folds of curtains and laundry and the seams of couches and chairs. Their hiding place doesn’t even need to be fabric: They’ve been known to settle into drawers, wallpaper, electrical outlets, and even the heads of screws. It’s for this reason that any kind of free furniture, not just beds, you see out on the street should almost always be left alone.
4. MYTH: THEY ONLY COME OUT IN THE DARK.
Keeping your lights on all night won’t stop the bed bugs from biting. As long as the little pests are hungry, they’ll crawl out of their hiding places to feed, no matter how bright it is in your bedroom. The myth that bed bugs don’t like light may have originated from the fact that they’re nocturnal, and therefore more active at night. Don’t use this as an excuse to change your sleeping schedule, however, as they can bite at anytime.
5. MYTH: YOU CAN RECOGNIZE THEIR BITES.
Don’t depend on a telltale bite mark to alert you to the presence of bed bugs. People react differently to bed bug bites: They can come in various sizes, include irritated rashes, or produce no rash at all. A cluster of red marks where multiple bugs were biting exposed skin is one common sign to look out for, though the evidence isn’t always this obvious. Some bites don’t leave a mark or leave one that’s barely visible, allowing the parasites to feed discreetly for days.
6. MYTH: THE BEST WAY TO KILL THEM IS WITH RUBBING ALCOHOL.
One especially misguided myth suggests using rubbing alcohol as a DIY bed bug control method. But it turns out this isn’t very effective: In one bed bug study, rubbing alcohol only killed half of its intended targets. And on top of that, dousing your furniture in rubbing alcohol also turns it into a fire hazard. People employing this tactic have started several house fires in the U.S. over the last decade.
7. MYTH: YOU CAN GET RID OF THEM ALONE.
Unless you’re an exterminator, never try getting rid of bed bugs on your own. Bed bugs are starting to develop resistance to certain pesticides, so even blasting them with harsh chemicals you bought from the store may not be enough to stop them. It usually takes a combination of factors, including heat and fumigation, to completely rid an infested home of bed bugs. “This is one of the things that’s not do-it-yourself,” Stillwaugh says. “It’s best left to professionals.”
8. MYTH: THEY’RE ATTRACTED TO DIRT.
Bed bugs are are often associated with dirty places, but in reality they couldn't care less about the cleanliness of your home: What they’re really looking for is heat and carbon dioxide, something every human being emits regardless of how they live. “Bed bugs have been found everywhere from high-end hotels to apartments and shelters,” Stillwaugh says. It is true that bed bugs have an easier time infesting disorganized homes, but that’s because the clutter gives them more places to hide and not because they’re attracted to filth.
9. MYTH: THEY CAN FLY.
Good news: Outside of your nightmares, bed bugs can’t fly. The tiny insects have no wings with which to swoop down upon their victims. They’re also incapable of jumping great distances—unlike their fellow parasite, the flea. If they want to get somewhere, they have to crawl there.