Bed Bug Prevention and Management

Bed bug infestations have been steadily rising over the past few years, not just in single-family homes and apartments, but also in non-residential settings such as colleges, daycares, schools, hospitals, and other public places. A 2011 survey of U.S. pest professionals by the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) and the University Kentucky found that 54 percent of pest professionals encountered bed bugs in campus residence halls in 2011 compared to 35 percent in 2010.

Although bed bugs seem to have lost their front-page news status from a year or two ago, they have not retreated from Americans’ everyday lives. Bed bugs continue to be a prevalent problem across the country and can be found any place humans live and gather. College residence halls, classrooms, offices, and other similar areas are especially vulnerable to bed bug infestations due to the pest’s hitchhiking nature. Whether brought to campus by a student returning from a trip or a staff member who may have an infestation at home, once bed bugs are found on a college campus, it’s imperative administrators act quickly to remedy the problem.

What Are Bed Bugs?
Adult bed bugs resemble a flat apple seed, while hatchlings are so small they can pass through a stitch-hole in a mattress. These pests feed on human blood and are found wherever people are, often hiding in spots humans can’t see. The bugs most often feed at night, as they are drawn to the steady stream of carbon dioxide people exhale during sleep. What makes these pests especially problematic is the fact that they are elusive and breed quickly. A female bed bug can lay one to five eggs in a day and more than 500 in a lifetime.

Bed bugs are excellent hitchhikers and are easily transported from one place to another. They will hide in suitcases, boxes, and shoes to be near a food supply. They like to hide in small cracks and crevices close to a human environment. Although bed bugs are most often found on mattresses, box springs, and headboards, they also go beyond the bed. These pests can also hide behind baseboards, wallpaper, upholstery, picture frames, electrical switch plates, and in furniture crevices. Telltale signs of a bed bug infestation include small red to reddish-brown fecal spots on mattresses, upholstery, or walls, as well as shed bed bug skins and white, sticky eggs or empty eggshells. Very heavily infested areas may have a characteristically sweet odor and victims of bites may exhibit red, itchy bite marks, especially on the legs, arms, and other body parts that are exposed while sleeping.

Responding to a Bed Bug Incident
A bed bug infestation on a college campus can generate anxiety among students, parents, and staff and tarnish the reputation of a school if the situation is not handled properly. For example, earlier this year, a university in the Midwest found out exactly what can happen if a bed bug problem is not handled properly.

According to the university’s newspaper, rumors of bed bug problems spread across campus. A resident adviser told the newspaper that she informed the university’s housing administration about bed bugs in her room and alleged that she was told not to inform her floor about the problem. The university eventually used bed-bug sniffing dogs to search all the rooms and treated nearly 200 for bed bugs. Additionally, the school established a website providing bed bug information, prevention, and detection tips and daily updates about the bed bug issue on campus. These were all the right steps, but they came after rumors and speculation were rampant among the students. Much of this could’ve been avoided if the university had a proactive bed bug plan and open communication with the student body from the start. College administrators should be mindful of college students’ proclivity for sharing information via social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, which allow rumors to quickly spread across a campus and beyond.

As bed bug incidents on college campuses continue to occur, it’s essential for college administrators to develop a “bed bug action plan” so that they are prepared to respond to problems as they arise. The written plan should educate staff, faculty members, and students about basic bed bug biology and habits (especially their hitchhiking nature, which allows them to easily go from home or hotel to school and residence halls), how to recognize bed bugs and evidence of infestations and bites, responsibilities and roles regarding bed bugs and school response, and actions to reduce the risk of future infestations or incidents. Most importantly, administrators should interview and retain an experienced professional pest management company so that they are prepared in case of a bed bug incident, as they will need to react quickly to get a handle on infestations. Taking a proactive and organized approach will afford administrators an advantage in responding to bed bug infestations.

Preventing Future Infestations
Because of bed bugs’ elusive and hitchhiking nature, coupled with the atmosphere in residence halls, future bed bug infestations can be difficult to prevent. However, with proper protocol, infestations can be detected in short order and minimized. Following are some suggested actions:
  • Recognize that staff and students may live in bed-bug infested homes or that students returning to school from spring break or other travel may unknowingly bring the pests in their luggage. Establish a permanent inspection and monitoring program to identify new bed bug introductions before they spread; including, but not limited to, common living/gathering areas, regular residence hall rooms, classrooms, lockers, and even school bus checks.
  • Consider arranging periodic inspections by a pest management professional to check areas where bed bugs have previously been found, as well as other areas that may harbor the pests.
  • Provide information to all students and their parents about the importance of eliminating bed bugs at home, as well as guidance on how to avoid bringing the bugs to school.
  • Encourage students who live on campus to reduce clutter in their rooms. Also encourage students who come back from trips to inspect luggage outside prior to bringing it inside their residence halls.
Inspect residence halls thoroughly after students have left for the summer, when rooms and beds are empty and bare.
  • Discourage students from bringing secondhand furniture into residence halls, as bed bugs have often been found in old couches and chairs. If they must, educate them about the importance of thoroughly checking the furniture before bringing it inside.
The Bottom Line
Bed bugs, unfortunately, aren’t going away any time soon and colleges are likely to continue experiencing infestations. Although pest professionals have a variety of treatment options at their disposal and can successfully eliminate bed bug infestations, awareness and vigilance among students, staff, administrators, and even parents can go a long way in curtailing bed bug incidents on college campuses. 

Missy Henriksen is the vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association. The NPMA, a nonprofit organization with more than 7,000 members, was established in 1933 to support the pest management industry’s commitment to the protection of public health, food, and property. For more information about pests and prevention tips, please visit