The bed bug resurgence in the United States has not been good for my sanity. I feel vaguely paranoid every time I bring home a used piece of furniture or buy clothes from a consignment shop, and I’ve lain awake in more than one perfectly nice hotel room, imagining insects crawling across my skin or–worse–stowing themselves away in my luggage. I’m generally not this phobic about bugs, and can even name a few species that are more than welcome to live in my home in reasonably small numbers, but I’m pretty creeped out by the idea of being quietly fed on in my sleep.
I’m also concerned by bed bugs’ reputation as a stubborn pest. They’re excellent hiders, which means it’s difficult to be sure you’ve killed them all, and if you miss even a tiny pocket of the infestation, you’re destined to become a nightly blood donor again. Because there’s no one guaranteed way to get rid of bed bugs in the house, aside from inconvenient and expensive whole-house fumigation, eliminating them usually means combining several carefully orchestrated techniques, some of which may need to be periodically repeated. You’ll have much higher chances of success if you work with an experienced pest control service rather than trying to go it alone, so while you can attempt the following steps yourself, they’re intended more as a guide to what to expect from your exterminator.
Signs of Bed Bugs
- live adults about the size of a grain of rice
- smaller, lighter-colored nymphs
- clusters of tiny, oblong eggs
- empty skins molted by bed bug nymphs
- spots of undigested blood, ranging in color from red to black, on bedding or in the bugs’ hiding places
- straight lines of red, possibly itchy bumps on areas of skin that have been exposed during the night
- a sweet, musty odor
Getting Rid of Bed Bugs in the House
Locate the little bloodsuckers. Bed bugs live in dry, dark places near the person they’re currently eating. Look for bugs, eggs, and telltale spots of undigested blood on all of your bedroom furniture, especially around seams and tears in your mattress and box spring and in the crevices of your bed, headboard, and nightstand; take furniture apart whenever possible. Check the seams and pockets of your pajamas and other clothing. Lift the edges of carpet and remove anything mounted or hung on the walls, including outlet covers, baseboards, and decorations. Dust a natural pyrethrin insecticide like PyGanic into cracks to flush bugs out, and set up corrugated cardboard traps or the Catchmaster Bed Bug Detection System. Adjacent rooms to every side, including above and below, should also be carefully checked for signs of infestation.
Whenever you find bed bugs, vacuum them up. Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter and a bag rather than a canister. As soon as you finish sucking bugs into their dusty grave, remove the bag and seal it in plastic before throwing it away. Never store a vacuum cleaner for any length of time with bed bugs or their eggs inside it. In fact, the room or closet where you keep your vacuum cleaner should be thoroughly inspected for signs of bed bugs, in case you unwittingly transferred a few before you knew they’d invaded your home.
Kill bed bugs and their eggs with extreme heat. Infested items that won’t be damaged by moisture can be blasted with a handheld steam cleaner. This is one of the safest and most effective ways to kill bed bugs residing on your mattress and box spring, which you should also protect with bug-proof encasements, such as the Allerzip covers made by Protect-A-Bed. Use similar covers for your pillows, which should first be either replaced or run through the dryer for at least 30 minutes on high heat. Once every week or two until the bed bugs are eliminated, wash your sheets, blankets, and clothing in hot water, then dry them on high heat.
Use insecticides carefully when battling bed bugs.Because bed bugs live where you sleep, it’s important to avoid using pesticides that are toxic to humans. Instead, spray all crevices, edges of carpet, covered areas of walls, and other likely bed bug haunts with a residual pyrethroid like D-Force HPX. Dust diatomaceous earth or silica aerogel inside wall voids and along wiring, plumbing, and ducts to kill bed bugs en route to their hiding places or other rooms of the house. Never treat your bed with chemicals, and, as always when handling pesticides, follow the instructions on the label precisely.
Eliminate warm-blooded pests from your home. Bed bugs aren’t picky eaters; besides humans, they’ll also feed on dogs, cats, birds, bats, rodents, or any other warm-blooded animal that’s handy. In some cases, roosting bats or birds are actually the source of a bed bug infestation. At the very least, these pests can carry bed bugs from room to room, so it’s important to get rid of them. Any area of the house where you find birds or small mammals should also be inspected for signs of bed bugs.
Clean your room. To a bed bug, a pile of laundry or stack of papers looks like an ideal place to nail a “Home Sweet Home” sign, so your bedroom, any other infested rooms, and the rooms adjacent to those should be thoroughly decluttered. The fewer hiding places you provide for bed bugs, the less likely it is that they’ll elude you during your seek and destroy missions. Wash laundry in hot water before putting it away, and seal trash in plastic bags before you toss it. Look closely at items that could be harboring bed bugs, and vacuum up any you find.
Tighten security. Search high and low for cracks, gaps, and crevices in the walls and floors of infested areas of your house, and seal any you run across. Bed bugs are small and flat-bodied, and can even squeeze into tiny cracks you might be tempted to ignore, so be thorough. Start by dusting each crack with a residual powdered insecticide like DeltaDust or diatomaceous earth and vacuuming up any bed bugs that emerge. Then fill in the cracks with clear silicone caulk, which will flex along with the house as it responds to changes in temperature and humidity.
The nuclear option.
If you have some cash to throw around and another place to crash for a few days, have your house tented and fumigated. Structural fumigation is the only quick and entirely certain way to eliminate a bed bug infestation.
How to Avoid Bed Bugs
The bad news about bed bugs is that they know no social boundaries: they like the taste of clean people as much as unwashed ones, they can just as easily hide in a mahogany armoire as a particle-board dresser, and they’re about as likely to lurk in fancy hotels as shabby ones. The good news is that, by being knowledgeable and attentive, you can often avoid bringing bed bugs home with you.
- Look carefully at used furniture before bringing it home to ensure that there are no bed bugs or bed bug eggs hidden in the nooks and crannies.
- Check the seams and pockets of second-hand clothing before you buy it, looking for bed bugs as well as the small, dark blood spots they excrete before meals.
- Whenever you stay in a hotel, no matter how classy or expensive it is, inspect your room for signs of bed bugs, and use a metal luggage rack to keep your stuff off the floor and the furniture.
- Be vigilant about keeping warm-blooded pests out of your home — especially birds and, which can carry bed bugs and their nearly identical cousins, Eastern bat bugs.