Scott Settles of Middle Valley hasn't had a good night's sleep for two weeks since his war against the bedbugs began.
The self-employed contractor still wakes in the middle of the night to a creepy, itchy feeling, even after spending $1,200 for a multiroom bedbug treatment from Terminex and $800 for a new mattress.
"I'll jump up with a flashlight, jerk the covers back and there hasn't been anything there. It might be in my head," he said. "It's been awful."
Poison ivy-like welts popped up a month ago on Settles' legs and arms, but it wasn't until a couple weeks ago that he woke up itching, pulled back the covers and saw bedbugs crawling around his sheets.
"I freaked out," he said.
Settles immediately went online and started researching what the insects could be. He didn't go back to sleep.
ON THE WEB
* Adult bedbugs are about the size of an apple seed. They are flat and light brown to tan before they feed, then turn reddish after they feed.
* They can live in cracks and crevices, behind electrical outlets, in mattresses, box springs, luggage, upholstery and bed posts or other furniture.
* Bedbugs have not been proven to transmit disease, but their bites can leave itchy welts. Fear of the insects can cause insomnia and anxiety.
* Before bringing your suitcase into a hotel room, inspect the mattress and headboard for signs of bedbugs, including reddish blood stains or ink-colored fecal matter stains on the sheets and mattress.
* Elevate your luggage, storing it on the hotel's luggage rack or in the bathroom instead of in drawers. Avoid putting clothes on the bed.
* Examine your luggage when returning home. Some recommend unpacking your bag in your garage or utility room.
* In your home, vacuum carpets and wash sheets regularly, and keep clutter to a minimum.
Source: Orkin, local exterminators
"It's been a two-week battle from that night," he said.
After five decades of a relatively bedbug-free existence, Americans are facing an "alarming resurgence" of bedbugs, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Possible explanations include resistance to modern pesticides, the replacement of spray pesticides with bait traps (which don't kill bedbugs), a rise in worldwide travel that allows the insects to move easily and lack of public awareness, experts say.
The blood-feeding, nocturnal bedbugs were virtually wiped out in the United States after World War II with the widespread use of spray pesticides. They have re-emerged over the past decade, starting in major population centers such as New York City.
But some local exterminators say reports of bedbugs have flared up in Chattanooga over the last year.
"This past year, they've just kind of exploded," said Jeff Clark, exterminator with Jody Millard Pest Control in Hixson
Clark, 37, said he first started getting calls about the pests four years ago.
The Terminex branch in Hixson has handled almost one bedbug case a day in recent weeks, said branch manager Mike Jones.
"Especially during the course of 2010, the upsurge has been the biggest upsurge of any bug I've seen, in terms of rapid rate of reports," he said. "I think we're probably seeing the tip of the iceberg."
But Oliver Mayfield of Mayfield Brothers Pest Control in Hixson, said he believes the reports of infestations are overblown and are sometimes cases of mistaken identity.
"The (pest control) industry has become more knowledgeable. They're making a big hoopla out of (bedbugs) so they can make more revenue," he said.
But Mayfield said that when the pests do invade, they are tough to wipe out. Residents must be willing to trash couches and beds, launder every single item of clothing and ruthlessly cut through clutter, he said.
"It changes their lifestyle. Never will it be the same if you get bedbugs in your home," he said. "The next time you stay in a hotel or motel, you're going to look at it differently."
Bedbugs DON'T DISCRIMINATE
Bedbugs can be found in hotels, motels, college dormitories, public housing and apartment complexes. Bedbugs can also proliferate in homes for the elderly because seniors tend not to have a telltale allergic reaction to their bites, said Karen Vail, entomology professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
About 30 percent of people don't react to bedbug bites, according to a survey from the University of Kentucky published in Pest Control Technology magazine this year.
Public health officials in Chattanooga and North Georgia said they've worked with local hotels to deal with bedbug complaints.
And a five-star hotel is just a susceptible as a run-down apartment, experts say.
"Bedbugs have nothing to do at all with hygiene," Clark said. "They are blood feeders. They can live just as well in a house that's immaculate as they can in one that's filthy."
Raymond King, district environmental health director for the North Georgia Public Health District, emphasized that bedbugs can live in vacuum cleaner bags and can survive for months without a blood meal.
The website bedbugregistry.com allows travelers to anonymously report incidents of bedbug infestation at hotels and motels.
Within the hotel industry, bedbugs have always been on the radar and the level of activity in hotels statewide hasn't changed in recent years, said Greg Adkins, CEO of the Tennessee Hospitality Association. He said the association doesn't track how many hotels are dealing with bed bugs, but the increase in media coverage prompted the group to remind its members to be proactive and train staff to identify the signs of the bedbugs.
"Because it does affect their botton line business, our members are very concerned about it and want the best possible stay for their customers," he said. "It's not an epidemic in our industry and the reason is because we are very good about treating it."
The good news is that bedbugs have not been proven to transmit diseases, said Bonnie Deakins, environmental health services director at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.
"But that bite of the bedbug can cause irritation, itching, that type of thing. ... You just don't want bugs where you're sleeping," she said.
In rare cases, people have severe allergic reactions to the bites. More commonly, insomnia and anxiety accompany the creepy-crawly sensation of having - or imagining - parasites crawling around one's sheets and pillows, experts said.
Today's bedbug-sheltered generation faces a likely return to the early 20th century levels, when the advice "sleep tight; don't let the bedbugs bite" was dispensed in earnest, experts predict.
Better strategies to battle the bugs are being explored, including heat treatments and bedbug-sniffing dogs, Vail said.
Extreme heat is the bugs' "Achilles heel" and may end up being the preferred treatment, Vail said.
Settles said he suspects a trip to Cincinnati four months ago brought hitchhiking bedbugs into his home. He hopes to sleep tight again soon, now that the battle is presumably over.
"It pretty much put my life on hold before I got it taken care of. It's been a pretty bad experience," he said.
Contact Emily Bregel at email@example.com or (423) 757-6467.