Laptops, textbooks and new jeans are among the must-haves for college students heading back to campus, but the most common back-to-school item may well be the blood-sucking bedbug. Colleges around the U.S. are reporting a scourge of the little buggers infesting dormitories, and the problem only gets worse when they hitchhike on their coed hosts going from room to room.
“U.S. college campuses are really the perfect setting,” noted entomologist Richard Cooper told Matt Lauer on TODAY Friday. “We have large numbers of students coming from all over the country and, in fact, all over the world every semester, and it’s inevitable that somebody is going to bring bugs with them. And once the bugs are introduced, they can rapidly spread because of all the interactions students have visiting each other’s rooms.”
The denizens of the mattress — nocturnal critters who feed on their host at night, then hide in the nooks and crannies of a bed during the day — trace their U.S. roots to soldiers returning home from World War II. They gained strength in numbers during the 1990s with widespread infestations of homes, hospitals and hotels.
But Cooper told Lauer that college campuses are a virtual perfect storm for bedbugs to thrive and grow in numbers.
Schools such as Stanford and Ohio State have had to clear out dormitories to deal with the scourge in recent years — and last year, Texas A&M had to empty its coffers of $27,000 to transport bedbug-sniffing dogs and high-heat treatments to rid dorms of the insects. The University of Florida is baking dorm mattresses at 113 degrees-plus to kill their bedbug populace.
Cooper told Lauer bedbugs tend to thrive because they are hard to spot — and even harder to eradicate. He brought along some samples to TODAY, and while Lauer noted there were some “big, juicy ones,” many are too minute to spot.
“They don’t carry disease, but they do leave incredibly itchy, irritating welts that can become heavy rashes on some people,” Cooper said. Checking for bites is one way to spot the furtive insects, and looking for their tiny black droppings on a mattress is another way to detect, he added.
Bake the buggers
The University of Florida knows what it’s doing by baking the bugs, Cooper added.
“Heat is a great idea — it is the biggest weakness of the bedbugs,” he told Lauer. “It will kill the adults and the immatures, the eggs as well.”
Unfortunately for a private homeowner, the practice is not for amateurs.
“Getting rid of them is very difficult. This is really a job for a professional,” Cooper said. “This is not something someone is going to do on their own. It takes repeated treatments.”
More from TODAY.com
TODAY's Takeaway: Anchors reveal prom pics; staffers' kids take over
1. After TODAY producers surprised Tamron Hall by revealing her prom photo on Wednesday, we were inspired to collect #TODA...
- Surprise! Stranger captures sweet sidewalk proposal in 'magical' photos
- Girl hands her jobless dad's resume to Michelle Obama
- Size them up! Babies pose next to monstrous burritos
- Roaring guitars, purring pets: Who knew metalheads were so mushy about cats?
- TODAY's Takeaway: Anchors reveal prom pics; staffers' kids take over
For the good news: “Once they’re gone, unless they are reintroduced, the problem is solved,” Cooper said.
Cooper’s ounce of prevention includes purchasing mattress and box spring encasements that restrict bedbug movement and make them easier to detect. And never, ever bring in discarded furniture from the street — as appealing as that might be for a college student looking to jazz up a dorm room.
“College students are on a budget, and they may see a mattress or other piece of furniture and their first thought is to take it home,” Cooper said. “More often than not, items on the street have bedbugs.”
He adds that students shouldn’t sit luggage or backpacks on their beds because bedbugs may have been hitching a ride during their travel. And if bedbugs are detected, hot laundering is the best home cure.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints