5 On Your Side

Family endures $5,000 bedbug battle

Posted November 15, 2010 5:00 p.m. EST
Updated November 15, 2010 7:16 p.m. EST

— Many places have bedbugs, including some hotels and homes in North Carolina. Still, most people don't think they could ever get bedbugs in their homes.

"I used to say to my son, ‘Sweet dreams, good night, don't let the bedbugs bite.’ I never meant it,” said one woman, who asked that her identity not be revealed. “I didn’t know they were real.”

Now, the woman and her family know that the creepy, crawly blood-sucking bugs are very real.

The woman doesn’t want her identity known because of the stigma, which is spreading about as fast as the bugs themselves.

"I don't want to walk down the street and have people think, ‘Oh she's the one with bedbugs. Stay away,’” she said.

But she wants everyone to realize how serious the problem is and what it's really like to endure a bedbug battle.

Her year-long battle began when she noticed what looked like a rash on her 8-year-old son's legs. She thought it was soccer-related until that night, when they were reading and she fell asleep in his bed.

“I felt this thing on my face, and it felt like a bug," she said. "I turned on the light and there was bugs walking across the pillow.” 

They were the same bugs she saw in a nice North Carolina hotel she had stayed in three months earlier.

“I'm freaking out, and I'm looking for them. They were in the corner, in the bunk bed, on the mattress, on the cover, on the side, the top bunk, the bottom bunk. They had set up shop,” she said.

Her son's sheets showed what she now knows as a tell-tale sign of bedbug bites: tiny blood stains.

The elusive, nocturnal bugs spread from his bedroom to hers, and she can't begin to count the sleepless nights.

“Every night, I would flash the lights on at 3, 4, 5 o'clock in the morning just to see if I could catch them,” she said. “Some nights, I just wanted to cry because, you know, where do you go?"

Family, friends and neighbors kept their distance, fearing they would get the bugs. To keep that from happening, her family's daily routine, even just getting dressed, turned upside down.

"You put everything in the dryer that you are going to put on before you walk out of the house,” she said.

Extreme heat kills the bugs, so from bed linens to clothes, the machines churned almost all day, every day.

"Our dryer door fell off (because) we used it so much,” she said.

Three different companies treated the house. The chemicals required in her son’s room were so toxic that no one could go in for two months. Glue-filled bug collection coasters are still under the bed posts, and mattresses have special covers.

The battle was costly &ndash emotionally and financially. The woman says she has spent about $5,000 so far, but it appears the house is finally bedbug free.

"So now I say, ‘Night, night. Don't let the bedbugs bite,’ and we both just crack up, because we really mean it,” she said.

Tips to keep bed bugs away

North Carolina State University is home to one of the world’s largest bedbug banks.

“We probably have half a million to a million bedbugs in here, said Coby Schal, a professor of entomology at N.C. State.

The bank has everything from translucent baby bugs, smaller than the head of a pin, to flat, brown, quarter-inch-sized adults.

“I think sooner or later we'll all be touched in some way by bedbugs,” Schal said. “I think people need to know that the bedbug problem is real, is very severe and it’s not getting any better soon.”

Bedbugs have infested area schools, hotels, apartments and homes in all kinds of neighborhoods.

“Raleigh has a lot of bedbug infestations, the whole Triangle, the whole state of North Carolina,” Schal said. “Bedbugs feed on human blood, and they couldn't care less whether you are an upscale executive or whether you live in low-income housing. Blood is blood to them.”

The best protection is taking the risks seriously, especially when traveling, he said. That starts with the moment they walk in the room.

"What most people do is choose the bed they're going to sleep on and throw their suitcase on the other bed. Don’t do this!" Schal said.

Instead, he said, people should put their suitcases on the valet, away from the bed and walls. Then, they should strip the bed and check the seams of the mattress, box spring and pillows and look for bugs, fecal pellets or smears. Ideally, he said, they should use a pocket flashlight, and check the headboard.

"Bedbugs love to be behind the headboard, because the cleaning services disturb the bed all of the time, so they move to the headboard,” Schal said.

Even if the room looks clear, he said, people shouldn’t unpack their suitcases. If someone happens to bring bedbugs home, Schal says they should hire a professional exterminator.