You’ve heard it a million times: Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite! But while this common refrain harks back to most Americans’ childhoods, many of us don’t realize just how common these insects are—even upscale hotels and condominiums have been infested by blood-sucking bed bugs.
If this pest is affecting your property, it’s important to take into account bed bug statistics, physiology, habits, identification of bites, how to control the problem, and the types of treatments you can use.
The Challenges of Bed Bug Elimination
A bed bug infestation is notoriously difficult to eradicate. Adept at hiding in beds, furniture, and the various cracks and crevices that appear in any home, they reproduce at lightning speed and lay eggs that resist most types of treatment. This usually means several rounds of treatment to get rid of the current population as well as concerted efforts to update your environment and make it far less bed bug-friendly.
The fastest way to end your bed bug problem is to take these steps:
- Inspect your mattress, box springs, bed frame, and furniture frequently, and occasionally inspect cracks in the floor or other crevices where bed bugs may shelter.
- Clear clutter.
- Find all sources of infestation throughout the house.
- Determine whether your infestation is coming through the yard or from neighbors’ houses.
- Get help from everyone living in your home, apartment complex, or neighborhood.
The good news is that if you can make your environment less hospitable to bed bugs, you’ll make it easier to get rid of them, and greatly reduce the chances of their return—even without engaging a pest management professional.
Facts and Statistics
Bed bugs feed exclusively on blood, usually feeding for five to ten minutes at a time. The species most often found in human dwellings is the common bed bug, Cimex lectularius, which has a five- to ten-day life cycle of laying eggs, hatching, feeding and retiring to a secluded place to begin the cycle anew. Bed bugs do not eat after the feeding phase, so at first they may appear to come in waves. Once a home is infested, however, these pests may become a more or less constant presence.
According to the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), bed bugs are a frequent pest in American households. Nearly all (99.6%) pest control professionals have treated homes for bed bugs in the past year, unchanged from 2013, but higher compared to 5, 10 and 15 years ago. According to 68% of respondents in that same survey, bed bugs remain the most challenging pest to treat.
Summer is a particularly busy season for bed bug exterminators, in part because these insects often travel with people from one place to another and are found in all 50 states.
Inspect and Identify the Problem
Before you can figure out how to get rid of the bed bugs in your home, you have to know where to look for them. Referred to as red coats, mahogany flats, or chinches, the adult bed bug is a broadly flattened, ovoid insect with greatly reduced wings that lay eggs that look like tiny white ovals. Before feeding, bed bugs are usually brown in color and range from 6 to 9.5 mm in length; after they feed on blood, the body is swollen and red in color.
While these pests most commonly hide in the seams of mattresses or inside box springs, bed bugs may also be found in bed frames, carpet, cracks in the walls, crevices between the floor and baseboards or between baseboards and the wall, other furniture in bedrooms, and often in other rooms of the house. They’re also often detected in hotels, dormitories, nursing homes, and even sleeper cars on trains. Because they are daytime as well as nighttime feeders, these pests can be found anywhere humans stay for extended periods of time, from offices and schools to shops, buses, and cars.
Even if your inspection doesn’t turn up any bed bugs proper, you can look for signs of their presence, including brown to black stains (the residue of their excrement) on mattresses, box springs, and bed linens, and bloodstains on linens. Any of these signs could be evidence of a bed bug infestation.
Identify Bed Bug Bites
What makes bed bugs such terrible pests is their bites—caused when the insect feeds on human blood. Fortunately, identifying bed bug bites is fairly easy. Bites typically occur on areas like the face, neck, arms, and hands—skin that is exposed during sleep. Red welts, often arrayed in regular rows or zigzags, or clustered in patches, develop at the site of the bites. Bites may take a few days to manifest, so they may not always coincide with the presence of bed bugs.
While bed bug bites look similar to those of many other insects, the main indication that the bites are from bed bugs is the clustering pattern and that they usually correlate with sleep or other contact with a mattress. In serious cases, bites may become inflamed or blistered. However, they typically only become red and itchy for a few days before fading. If you develop a rash or serious blisters, contact a medical professional; otherwise you may be able to use an antihistamine cream or spray or other over-the-counter remedy to control the itching.
While some claims have been made about bed bugs carrying diseases (such as leprosy) there has been no proof that these pests are disease vectors, carriers of bacteria or viruses, or cause any harm to humans beyond feeding on their blood and causing them to itch.
Keeping Bed Bugs from Spreading
If you’re facing a bed bug infestation (or are hoping to head one off), there are many methods for controlling their spread. On the other hand, bed bugs have many ways of spreading undetected. Bed bugs travel on clothing stored in boxes or suitcases, backpacks, and shoes. Blankets, pillows and other travel accessories meant for sleeping are especially at risk from these pests.
At home, bed bugs may also set up in areas outside the bedroom, oftentimes ones you wouldn’t expect at all. They may, for example, hide behind wallpaper, inside cracks in plaster, or inside picture frames, under switchplates for lights and electrical sockets, in drawers and even screw heads, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For this reason, if your environment remains conducive to bed bugs after treating them, they will likely return.
You can, however, control the spread of bed bugs with using natural or chemical agents to treat your home. Be aware, however, that due due to the difficulty of the task, you may need to employ these strategies more than once. Note, too, that if your home environment remains conducive to bed bugs after treating them, they will likely return.
Set up a Clean Zone
Your bed bug control regimen starts with setting up a clean zone. The clean zone is an area where you place items after you rid them of bed bugs (or after you determine that they do not have bed bugs) to prevent further infestations or contamination as you work through your home. (Note: once you’ve set up a clean zone, make sure to protect it. Use plastic bags to transport potentially infected items through it, if necessary.)
To create a clean zone, start along one wall and clean the area. You can vacuum a carpeted area or use a wet cloth to clean hard floors. Use a card or similar item to determine if you have spaces in your bed frame, between your baseboards and walls or other cracks and crevices where the insects may hide. Pay attention to any movement and vacuum the insects when you find them.
Repeat this process on paintings, artwork or other items on your walls, or anywhere your home environment creates crevices or other hiding places. When you have a clean wall and open space, move on to other areas of the room. Move furniture into the clean zone as you eliminate the bed bugs or determine that items do not have bed bugs. Work your way through the room from one side to the other as you expand your clean zone.
Vacuum the Furniture
As you work through your room, vacuum each item to remove bed bugs. An ordinary vacuum cleaner can pick up any bed bugs on the surfaces of your bedding and cushions and will allow you to remove the insects from the area.
Use the vacuum cleaner on your mattress, couch, box spring, bed frame, or any other furniture. You can also run the vacuum cleaner over carpets, wood and other areas with potential cracks and crevices where the insects may hide to pull up most of the bed bugs.
If you are vacuuming a tight space, use an attachment with reasonable power to pull the insects out of cracks and crevices. Keep in mind that a vacuum may not pick up the bed bugs hidden deep in your mattress, box spring or other items. The goal of vacuuming is to remove most of the insects from the surface of your furniture.
Encase Your Furniture
When you have completed the process of vacuuming your furniture and laundering the fabrics in an infested area, you’ll want to use a mattress encasement and box spring encasement to cover your mattress and box spring. These encasements prevent the insects from getting out and infesting other areas of your home, and these mattress-cover-like items are designed to zip over your mattress or bed spring, trapping bed bugs inside.
When selecting and using a mattress encasement or a box spring encasement, pay attention to the details. Make sure you select the appropriate size based on your bed and the size of your furniture. Leave the mattress encasement on for a full year to ensure all of the bed bugs die, and you will not have another infestation in the future.
If you’re wondering how to kill or get rid of bed bugs without chemicals or insecticides, the good news is there are quite a few natural treatment options that are generally considered quite effective.
Bed bug coaster traps are the simplest and most easily applied non-chemical approach: placed underneath each post of the bed, these traps have rough outer faces to help bed bugs climb in, but smooth inner walls to keep them there.
Natural bed bug repellents are a simple solution to rid your home of these pests while avoiding the use of insecticides. Essential oils like neem oil and tea tree oil, aren’t bed bug killers (and you can’t rely on them to end an infestation by themselves), but they do discourage the insects from infesting your mattress, box springs, couch or other furniture.
Tea tree oil is a natural insect repellent and insecticide. Fill a spray bottle with water and put 20 to 25 drops of the oil into the bottle. Mix well by shaking the bottle and then spray the mixture into corners, crevices and areas where the insects may get into your home. You can also spray your mattress, box springs, bed frame, or other furniture to repel the insects and prevent bed bugs from moving onto them in the future.
Other natural oils that may help with bed bugs include:
- Neem oil
- Lavender oil
- Peppermint oil
- Rosemary oil
Mix essential oils with water to make your own home-made bed bug repellent spray.
Other natural bed bug repellents include rubbing alcohol and lemon grass powder. Rubbing alcohol and lemon grass powder work in similar ways by repelling bed bugs and preventing the insects from moving onto a mattress or piece of furniture. Some natural remedy experts recommend baking soda as well.
Another highly-recommended substance is diatomaceous earth, a powder made up of silica that damages bed bugs’ exoskeletons and eventually causes them to dehydrate. The best way to use diatomaceous earth is to sprinkle it in affected areas and then vacuum it up before sleeping in that area. Remove bedding before using it on a bed, then replace the bedding afterward. If you use diatomaceous earth, avoid the type that’s used as a purification agent for swimming pools, which can harm people if inhaled. Instead, use food-grade diatomaceous earth, which is used as a dietary supplement and is less harmful.
Use Steam and Heat
Bed bugs cannot withstand high temperatures: high heat eliminates bed bugs by killing off the insects and neutralizing their eggs, and is as effective, if not more effective, than many insecticides. So you or an exterminator can eliminate the bugs by using a high-powered steamer or other heating solutions to treat your furniture or other infested areas of your home.
How to pursue a heat treatment depends on your situation and what areas of your home have become infested. You can use a steam cleaner to kill bed bugs and their eggs in hard-to-reach areas such as carpets, cracks in the floor, or crevices between your baseboards and the floor, and it will kill the insects at every stage of life. Ideally, you want to use a commercial grade steam cleaner or dry steamer for your heat treatment.
To do a heat treatment, remove blankets, sheets and other bedding. Place every fabric item from the infested area in a washing machine and set the water temperature to high to kill the insects on your bedding, since hot water kills the insects and prevents the eggs from hatching. Use hot water for every fabric item that’s been near the infested bed, couch or other furniture. To apply heat to unwashable items where bedbugs might have hidden or laid eggs, such as pillows or cushions, use a steam cleaner.
After you’ve stripped off your bedding and made your mattress, box spring, and bed frame easily accessible, use the dry steamer or steam cleaner on every inch of the surfaces of the mattress and box spring (including the seams) and every crevice of your bed frame. Hold the nozzle close to the surface and ensure that the temperature reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit or higher to kill off the insects and prevent eggs from hatching. If you feel uncomfortable applying a heat treatment personally, you can consider professional services using heat and steam.
Remember: a key reason bed bugs are hard to eliminate is the way they move from space to space by getting onto other fabrics. By killing the insects in your mattress and box springs and on your furniture and throughout your property, you prevent them from moving and continuing to cause health risks for your family. Remember, too, that as you take on any infestation in your bedding, you should de-clutter in order to deny the bedbugs any other places to hide.
While natural methods can be very helpful and may be sufficient to stave off some infestations, it is not always possible to eradicate bed bugs without pesticides. The most common chemical bed bug treatment is bed bug spray, which you can either spray on affected areas or use in a fogger. While foggers have a mixed reputation, and the EPA does not guarantee their effectiveness, you can use them to fumigate an entire room or area of the house. If you choose to utilize a fogger—or any other insecticides—be sure to understand how they work and read all instructions on using them properly. Not all bed bug spray is FDA-approved or safe for your family. Check all chemicals before using them to ensure that they’re tested and legal.
Evaluation and Ongoing Prevention
When you’ve finished your treatments, you’ll want to make sure they’ve been effective, and even if you haven’t experienced an infestation you’ll want to keep vigilant in order to prevent any in the future (particularly if you hear of any bed bug infestations in your neighborhood or apartment building). Prevention means making a habit of some of the same strategies that can end an infestation, but the additional effort is worth it to ensure that these tenacious little pests never (or never again) get a foothold in your home. For the most effective prevention, work the following activities into your ordinary cleaning, buying, and travel routines:
- Before bringing new furniture or a new mattress into your home, inspect it for signs of an infestation. You want to ensure that the furniture does not have any damage that may stem from bed bugs.
- If you take in any secondhand furniture, inspect it thoroughly for signs of bed bugs before bringing it into the house. If you are unsure, do not bring it home. And even if you don’t see signs of infestation, spray it thoroughly with a repellent and think about using a mattress cover.
- Vacuum and clean regularly. Limit clutter in your home to prevent the insects from hiding in your property. Vacuuming regularly will help get rid of any hitch-hiking bed bugs that end up in your home from traveling or exposure to the insects outside your home. Consider caulking or painting over cracks in your floor or crevices in your walls or molding.
- Launder your clothes and other fabrics in hot water, and dry them on a high heat setting. Always launder clothes you travel with before you put them back in your room or drawer, even if they were previously cleaned. Hotels may have infestations and the insects can enter your home on your clothes, in your bags, or on other items you carry during travel. By cleaning these items with hot water and drying on high heat before putting them away, you can prevent any hitchhiking insects from infesting your home. You can also use a hair dryer to treat suitcases, purses or other bags and items you are not able to launder when traveling.
- Especially after you’ve just returned home, but also on an ongoing basis, go on bed bug patrol: check your mattress, box springs, bed frame, and sheets for signs of blood or excrement spots. Keep a flashlight on hand so you can perform inspections in dark crevices and under the bed as well. Check pet beds, too, since bed bugs may also feed on dogs and cats.
When to Call a Professional
If an infestation continues for weeks or months, and if repeated treatments fail to be effective, it’s time to call in professional exterminators. These pest control professionals can assist you in ridding your home of bed bugs once and for all, are trained in the use of insecticides, repellents, sprays, heat, and other methods, and can offer specific tips that will help you keep your home bed bug free now and in the future.
While bed bugs might be a pesky problem, and hard to get rid of, know that there are no long-lasting effects of bed bug bites, and that they are more a nuisance to you and your family than anything else. They’re still unwelcome guests, however, so an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of time-consuming treatment.