Though bed bugs can theoretically be passed from person to person, the likelihood is low. It is more accurate to think of them as stowaways, rather than contagious.
How Bed Bugs Spread from One Location to the Next
Bed bugs hide where people spend a lot of time, such as the folds of a mattress or an armchair. They are often transported from one place to another during travel. Bed bugs hiding in a hotel mattress will hide inside luggage and subsequently be relocated at another stop along the travel route or directly to the home of the traveler.
The Likelihood of Direct Person to Person Transfer Is Low
Bed bugs are not like lice or scabies that will readily move from one host to another through person-to-person contact. Several characteristics of the bed bug make the likelihood of direct person-to-person transfer low.
The bed bug doesn’t live on its host. Bed bugs are not like lice. Lice are extremely contagious and will readily trade one human host for another needing little more than close proximity to exchange hosts. Though they are similar in that they feed on the blood of the host, people who are not sleeping move too much to make a good hiding place for a bed bug. [Medline]
The bed bug feeds for a brief amount of time. The bed bug will only remain on its host until it becomes engorged, which is usually within 3-10 minutes. When they are finished feeding they move from the host to return to a dark, hiding place to digest the meal. [Cornell]
The bed bug doesn’t like light. Most human contact is initiated in light. Though hungry bed bugs may feed during the day, most come out at night to feed while a person is sleeping.
The bed bug is a homebody. The bed bug generally lives within eight feet of locations where people sleep such as a mattress or armchair. Though it will hitch a ride to a new location, it will seek out the same shelter in the new location. [CDC]
The bed bug doesn’t fly or jump. In the unlikely event that a bed bug is attached to a person while performing daily activities, it does not fly or jump, another factor inhibiting from readily moving from one host to another. [Cornell]
That Doesn’t Mean They Don’t Spread Rampantly!
Though direct person-to-person spreading of bed bugs is low, they are spread very easily through personal items that are carried from one place to another such as from one school backpack to another. They are most often spread through items carried in travel, from one apartment unit to another, or from infested items that are discarded and unknowingly picked up by another such as second-hand furniture.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Joint Statement on Bed Bug Control in the United States from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
National Institutes of Health Medline Plus
Urutia, M; Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health
Bed Bugs vs. Scabies Workshop
Cornell University Integrated Pest Management
FAQ List for Bed Bugs
Ohio Department of Health
Ohio Bed Bug Workgroup 2011
National Pest Management Association [NPMA]
Bed Bugs in America: New Survey Reveals Impact on Everyday Life
Wang, C; Rutgers University
Understanding Bed Bug Infestations and Dispersal Patterns