Air mattresses are—you guessed it!—filled with air. So, as such, a bed bug whose natural behavior is get a blood meal then to hide in tiny holes in its environment will be off-put (at the least) by an environment filled by air. (Air = no solid material in which to seek refuge!).
That said, air mattresses with flocked tops, and certainly bedding or other things in the bedroom, including bed frames themselves, curtains, carpeting, wallpaper, drawers, and so on, can serve as bed bug havens. On these possessions, you can sometimes recognize infestation by the blood or poop the bugs leave behind (ick!). More on those telltale signs shortly!
Now the great-and-not-gross news: PVC or heavy vinyl air mattresses are much less hospitable to bed bugs than standard foam, innerspring, or hybrid mattresses. Air mattresses are unlikely to harbor bed bugs. Plus, air mattress experts (e.g., Sleep Like the Dead; Wirecutter) recommend these beds’ short-term use only anyway—extended everyday use will wear them out and invalidate the warranty.
Of course, bed bugs don’t arise out of nothing or nowhere. These stowaways tend to be picked up during travel or excursions and they can hitchhike on furniture, bedding, suitcases, boxes, and the like. Bed bugs can also sometimes occur in congregate living settings such as hospitals, apartments, homeless shelters, or senior living facilities.
Thank goodness that there are a few good ways to help prevent these persistent pests and to recognize their presence. We’ll get to that a few sections from now.
But first, let’s go over some foundational air mattress information before we get to the yucky blood-sucking stuff about these bugs.
Air Mattress 101: Use Sparsely Only!
Air mattresses hold several advantages, especially with respect to other temporary bedding:
- They mimic a “real” bed in height and surface area more closely, so standard sheets and pillows should fit nicely.
- They can be more affordable than a pricey innerspring, hybrid, or foam mattress and frame and more comfortable than other short-term options such as a cot, sleeping bag, tent, or floor.
- They fold and pack away relatively easily.
- Pop-up camper (or “pup”) owners and camping aficionados report them to be useful (Source). For instance, Trip Savvy dubs SoundAsleep’s Dream Series, which self-pumps in about 4 minutes and has a 1-year warranty, as the best overall choice in air mattress, and it’s available through Amazon.
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- In that they are generally of heavy vinyl or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), they generally do not create a hospitable environment for bed bugs.
All that said, Wirecutter offers a rule of thumb for these pump-type mattresses: “An air mattress should be reserved for occasional use, or at most up to a week or two at a time” (Source).
By the same token, some of the things that make air mattresses so convenient detract from its use, especially in the longer-term.
- Comfort: Air mattresses generally do not support the back (or other regions, if you’re a side sleeper) very well.
- Partner Sleep Experience: I remember my air mattress with a humorous eye. We bought one for our first apartment years ago, and some models—all in my experience, but I’ll be generous with my adjective—have the tendency either to catapult or roll a sleep partner off the bed or into its center when weights shift or someone gets up or down onto the bed.
- Tears or Punctures (either catastrophic or slow).
- They Can Be Time-Consuming or Loud to Set Up (with an air pump) or to pack away.
Now, about those parasitic hitchhikers called bed bugs . . .
Bed Bug Basics
Let’s take a gander at the habits and presentation of some of these persistent pests and what little clues they may leave behind, so you can make an informed decision about what type of insect you may be dealing with.
Bed bugs are, of course, insects (phylum Arthropoda) in the family Cimicidae; the most common cimicids are Cimex lectularius (“common bed bug”) and Cimex hemipterus, with the latter mostly in the tropics. They range from 1 to 7 mm in size and are flat, wingless, and reddish-brown.
They feed nocturnally on the blood of a sleeping host (with peak bite-time just before dawn). Their favorite prey—like vampires! (kidding)—is humans, but they also chow down on birds and bats.
Fortunately, not everyone is allergic to their saliva (through which they inject a numbing agent and anticoagulants), but when you are, their bites may look like this photograph (also from Whitney Cranshaw, the entomology professor at Colorado State University; note a rabbit-shaped screen was used in the lab to make the bites really stand out) shared on the insect-reference site Bugwood.
In as little as 3 to 12 minutes, these biters can feast on an unsuspecting sleeper. Then they’ll drop off the host, and begin the walk-crawl back into a hidey hole. They’ve been measured going on 100-foot walkabouts, but usually they hang out within an 8-foot range of the host, including behind picture frames or wallpaper, within bed frames or bedding, in carpeting, in drawer joints, or on other furniture or clothing (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Environmental Protection Agency).
Primary bite sites are the face and distal extremities, e.g., hands, feet—areas not covered by clothes or blankets (Source).
Allergic reactions, such as itching, swelling, or rashes, and sometimes fever can result from a bed bug bite. Fortunately, anaphylaxis—or a severe allergic reaction—remains rare (Source).
Although these bugs can CARRY pathogens, they are not known at present to successfully transmit disease to humans (whew!), although some researchers are beginning to posit that they transmit arboviruses (arthropod-borne viruses).Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Up until the late 1990s, bedbug numbers in the United States were declining. Increases in globe-trotting and resistance to insecticides are tapped as prime drivers of the bed bug surge.
How Are Bedbugs Identified?
First, don’t panic—even if you or a child is bitten by an unknown bug.
As WebMD puts it, “Don’t assume your bites are bedbugs. . . . Rule out mosquitoes, fleas, mites, and biting gnats by conducting a visual inspection [of the bite and the room/bedding where you received the bite—most likely the bedroom]” (Source).
To that end, there are products out there that may help you collect live/dead bedbugs or assess if bed bug control has been effective, such as cup-like protectors/interceptors that sit under the “feet” of your bed or other furniture. For instance, this highly rated interceptor system by EcoPest Labs, the Bed Bug Blocker Pro (say that three times, fast!), is available on Amazon.
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In a little bit, I’ll list some other preventative methods and products, or you can ease on down the road to them now, below.
How to Confirm Bed Bugs’ Presence
You can collect bedbugs, their egg casings, or exoskeletons (or at least video or photographic evidence) and take/send them to experts to confirm they were responsible for a bite. I’ll say that again: The bugs themselves (or evidence of them) can be taken to local agricultural extension offices or some universities’ entomology departments.
Another avenue is to consult the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) about any baffling bug. You can call NPIC at 1-800-858-7378 (8:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. PST), or e-mail them at email@example.com.
But if you can’t find the bug itself for expert confirmation, look for these telltale signs:
- The egg casings of said bug, which are only about 1 mm, and “pale yellow skins that nymphs shed as they grow larger” (EPA).
- Bloodstains, especially along the seams (or occasionally in the piping or along the tags), of mattresses or in cushions.
- Dark spots of insect waste on furniture, walls, around electrical outlets or window frames, or even along floorboards.
Bed Bug Prevention and Control Tips
Top tips for prevention and control of bed bugs include the following:
- Inspecting any second-hand items very carefully before purchase, especially suitcases, furniture, curtains, and clothing.
- Enclosing your boxspring, pillows, and mattress—possible even with your air mattress—in protective coverings. This best-selling twin-sized mattress encasement by Utopia Bedding might be a good start for you (Source). For a queen-size, the highly touted zippered and hypoallergenic Linenspa cover may prove useful (Source).
- Thin, quiet waterproof barrier protects all 6 sides of the mattress from fluids and spills vinyl free materials are safe for kids
- Keeping bedrooms as clear of clutter as you can.
- Vigilantly vacuuming your home or living space. Bag up and seal any vacuum debris tightly and throw it outside immediately.
- Considering door sweeps and sealing crevices around baseboards, light sockets, etc., to discourage bugs from crawling through pipes, insulation, or wall voids (EPA)—for multifamily settings especially.
- Inspecting your hotel room or living area during travel, including the luggage rack in the room, underneath cushions, and the sleeping area itself.
- Using extremely high temperatures to “cook the bugs” if they are confirmed in your home. “Heat infested articles (e.g., furniture, luggage, other items that can’t go in a clothes dryer) and/or areas (i.e., a room in a house or apartment, or a whole house) to at least 120ºF (approx. 49ºC) for 90 minutes to ensure that eggs are killed” (EPA). If you live in an apartment, condo, etc., your landlord or property manager should typically be involved in this process—they might even be on the hook for any costs.
- DISPOSAL: Responsibly marking “bed bugs” in spray paint and discarding (completely disassembled, if possible) any unsaveable furniture, luggage, or clothing.
- Considering Integrated Pest Management (IPM), the gold standard for treating bed bug infestation, if the aforementioned do-it-yourself methods or these (EPA Do-It-Yourself bed bug control and prevention) do not help.
- Use do-it-yourself foggers only with extreme care!
If you find a bed bug or evidence thereof, try not to beat yourself up about it. We have evidence of these hardy bugs pestering humans as far back as 4 millennia ago, and our pesticides are starting to fail in their kill ratio.
Chances are good that if you’re using a temporary air mattress, bed bugs are going to have a harder time clinging to and finding hiding spots in the vinyl, PVC, or possibly rubber or rubber-like material. If you encase that mattress and your pillows, then it will go even farther toward preventing them.
Keeping these bugs at bay—and eradicating them once present—can be difficult, but taking proactive steps to prevent, inspect for, and then treat them as needed will help you sleep tight by literally not letting the bed bugs bite.
Sweet dreams, best wishes, and thank you for reading us!