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Can Bed Bugs Bite Through Your Clothes? Experts Share the Surprising Answer

Plus, how to keep them from coming into your home.

The fear of travelers and movie-goers alike, bed bugs can be a nightmare if these six-legged critters make their way into your home. But what if when sleeping at a hotel or sitting in a theater, you’re fully clothed: Can bed bugs bite through clothes? We reached out to the pest experts to determine if wearing long-johns to bed can help keep you safe.

What exactly are bed bugs?

Around since the time of the dinosaurs — with infestations in human civilizations noted as far back as 300 BC — bed bugs are small reddish-brown insects that feed on blood. They first arrived in the U.S. in the 18th century, hitchhiking on bedding and clothes along with people emigrating from overseas. The use of DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, a synthetic insecticide) nearly wiped them out by the mid-20th century, but they began to make a resurgence years after the chemical was banned in the 1972. Today, nearly 1 in 5 people will encounter them either in their home or in a place they travel.

“Bed bugs are about the size of an apple seed and have an average life span of four to six months in most cases, but can survive up to a year inside your home,” says entomologist Jim McHale, head of JP McHale Pest Management.

Why bed bugs are so bad

There’s a reason we dread these tiny critters — they are extremely sneaky, hiding away in cracks and crevices and only emerging at night to feed, so they can often go undetected until their numbers grow out of control.

“As blood-feeding insects, bed bugs also bite, which can lead to itchy welts and a significant amount of discomfort,” explains John Target, bed bug expert and owner of Target Pest Control. “And it’s not just the physical effects that makes them problematic; the psychological toll of an infestation can lead to anxiety and sleepless nights. I’ve seen it firsthand — the stress and strain on families, the relentless pursuit to eradicate them — it can really impact peace of mind.”

The only good news? Unlike ticks and mosquitoes, bed bugs are not known to transmit any diseases through their bites.

Related: 8 Non-Toxic Tricks To Eradicate Earwigs From Your House — and Keep Them Gone!

How do bed bugs get in your house or on your clothes?

Can bed bugs bite through clothes: Mature woman standing in hotel room packing suitcase
David Jakle/Getty

Bed bugs are almost always brought into a home by the homeowners, due to one or two hitchhiking in on clothes, bedding, luggage or furniture.

“Staying at a hotel, college dorm, summer camp or even a relative’s house that has an infestation will usually allow bedbugs to find their way into your luggage and return home with you,” says McHale.

Second-hand furniture like mattresses, couches and armchairs, particularly ones scavenged from the side of the road, is another common source, as are plush second-hand toys, such as teddy bears.

You can also inadvertently bring in bed bugs after sitting in a theater or other public space that has an infestation.

“Luckily, bed bugs can’t jump, so walking into a room where they’re present does not mean they will be able to climb onto you easily — typically you need to sit or lie down on an infested surface for that to happen,” explains entomologist Bob Gilbert of Blue Sky Pest Control.

Related: How to Deep Clean A Mattress — The Genius DIY Spray That Freshens and Cleans Fast

Can bed bugs bite through clothes?

In short, no, says Gilbert, but that doesn’t mean wearing long-sleeved pajamas will protect you from bites. While the mouth parts on bed bugs are too small to reach your skin through fabric, unless you’re completely sealed up from head to toe, bed bugs will just target whatever exposed skin they can access.

“That’s why wrists and ankles are the most common places on the body for bed bug bites to appear,” says Gilbert. “Wearing long-sleeved clothes will neither protect you from bites nor protect you from transferring the bugs from, say, an infested hotel bed back to your home.”

How can you prevent bed bugs?

Bedbugs are attracted to dirty clothes, so if you can’t do laundry before heading home, pack all your dirty clothes in a sealed plastic bag, suggests McHale.

“When you arrive home, do not unpack your suitcase in your bedroom,” says McHale. “Instead, do so in another room with a hard floor and no carpet, like your garage or basement, so that you can spot any bugs that fall off. Inspect your suitcase with a flashlight to check for any critters and vacuum it before putting it away. Then wash everything on the hottest water setting you can you. This includes stuff you didn’t wind up wearing.”

It’s also best to never bring in furniture or mattresses found along the side of the road or from a second-hand store that doesn’t heat-treat their wares. When buying second-hand clothes, linens or plush toys, simply wash them on the hottest laundry setting as soon as (or before, if you use a laundromat) you bring them home, and stash them in a sealable bag when driving them home in your car.

If you’re traveling in the near future, you can also use the tips seen in the YouTube video below to help avoid bringing home any unwanted guests:

How do you know if you have bed bugs?

Because bed bugs are nocturnal, they can sometimes be tough to spot even though the adults are large enough to be seen with the naked eye.

“Other signs of an infestation can be red to reddish brown spots on your mattress or upholstery, as well as molted bed bug skins,” says McHale. “Ninety three percent of bed bugs are found on beds with the remaining 7% usually found somewhere near beds, so mattresses are the best place to check for them first.”

Bed bug bites are another sign you have an infestation, explains Target. “These bites often appear as red, itchy welts. While not everyone reacts to them, those who do can experience discomfort ranging from a mild itch to severe rashes.”

If you’re looking for a more comprehensive bed bug inspection process, check out the YouTube video below:

How to get rid of bed bugs

Bottom line, if you spot a bed bug in your home, it’s best to call in the professionals.

“Sometimes if caught early the situation is not an infestation, but an introduction — just a few bed bugs carried into the home,” says Gilbert. “If this is the case then a simpler, less costly treatment will likely eliminate them. But only a certified inspector can really determine how many are likely in your home, which rooms need to be treated and the best method to do so for the specific situation. DIY methods just aren’t usually comprehensive enough to tackle these particular pests, and then you wind up with a big — and in some cases extremely expensive—extermination job.”

For more on pest control, click through the links below!

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