Bedbugs are hitchhikers in the insect world. Because these insects don't have wings, they cannot fly. In order to get near their favourite meal - blood from warm-blooded animals like us humans - they have to grab on to whatever they can. The flat, oval, reddish-brown pest is usually about the size of a sesame seed, and baby bedbugs are only about the size of a poppy seed. But they can certainly cause you to itch, scratch, and lose some sleep. There had to have been a reason that the goodnight, sleep-tight nursery rhyme was written, right?

Bedbugs have to be one of the most aptly-named creatures, too. Active mostly at night, they tend to gravitate toward the bed. Or the bedside table. Or the crevices in the wall near your bed. Or onto the bed sheets and bedspreads. Your jammies aren't safe, either. Basically, bedbugs prefer to feed on flesh that's warm and not moving much, and since they can't fly, they'll hang out as near to their targets as possible. So, they get you while you're dozing and dreaming, barely moving except the occasional sleep twitch.

They're also surgically equipped for their kind of feeding. When they scurry onto a patch of skin that suits them, they'll inject their host with anticoagulants to keep the blood flowing and numbing agents to keep them unaware. Then their beak becomes a sort of straw for the resourceful bedbug to sip down blood. Bites pop up on the skin in the form of small, itchy red bumps. If a host happens to have an allergic reaction, the bites will be bigger and there may be blisters, skin rashes like hives, or pus-filled lesions.

Tropical climates have the tropical bedbug known as Cimex hemipterus, but the northern temperate regions of North America, Europe, and Central Asia have their own variety of the vermin: teensy-weensy Cimex lectularius. Places that see the most people traffic also see the most bedbugs. That's why high-density cities see outbreaks, like the ones that sweep across big cities like New York City and Toronto. That's also why places that have high occupancy turnover, like crowded apartment buildings, hotels, dormitories, and homeless shelters battle bedbugs.

Flightless bedbugs need transportation, and all of these types of places provide a variety of public transit options: on the fur of cats and dogs, and on people's socks, shoes, clothing, hats, bags, purses, and suitcases. Suitcases are the transport of choice for many cosmopolitan, travelling bedbugs. Hotels, with their rapid visitor turnover rate, have to be especially diligent to keep their guest rooms infestation-free.

How not to let the bedbugs bite

Clean and de-clutter. Bedbugs like to hide in the midst of messy, cluttered rooms. Take their hiding places away by throwing out excess papers and clearing out any trash or old boxes. Regular clean-ups including vacuuming, sweeping, and dusting will help to clear out the bedbugs that might hide in carpets and crevices.

Examine. If you wake up itching and suspect bedbugs, take a close look around. Inspect your mattress, bed linens, bedside furniture, and walls (since they'll sometimes crawl up the wall to hide behind pictures). Look for telltale signs of bedbugs, including small bloodstains and their signature coriander-like scent.

Cover up. There are a couple of cover-ups you should try. The first cover-up is what you wear to bed - the more skin you cover up, the less territory bedbugs will have to roam. The other cover-up is to caulk up any holes, open crevices, or cracks in the walls, windows, and floors. Bedbugs sometimes crawl in on their own.

Cool off. Bedbugs boom in warm rooms. Keep the air circulating to maintain a cooler temperature. Overheat your bedroom in the cold depths of winter and you run the risk of getting bitten, too.

And what to do if they do

Treat. Bedbug bites resolve on their own in a week or two. But sometimes the itch can't wait. Apply an anti-itch cream to the affected areas of your skin to stop that scratch-it urge. Avoid scratching the area to prevent infection. Antihistamines may help if you have an allergic reaction to the bites. If your reaction to bites is severe, consult a doctor.

Sanitize. In the event of infestation, your bedroom - and possibly other rooms - will need a good scrub-down. Vacuum, sweep, and clear up clutter to which bedbugs may cling. Wash linens and affected garments or stuffed animals in hot water. Another option is to freeze everything for at least 24 hours. If you use a vacuum to clean up, it's a good idea to freeze the vacuum bag or else properly dispose of it and replace it with a new one.

Exterminate. To completely rid your home of bedbugs, you may need to bring in professionals. Exterminators are trained to use the pesticides and chemicals that can kill off a bedbug invasion - you are most likely not! Don't attempt to use any harsh or dangerous chemicals on your own.

Amy Toffelmire