How to Deal with Bed Bug Infestations

Charlotte Miller

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Before a professional bed bug treatment, clear away clothing piles and other cluttered areas that could be hiding spots. Items that cannot be cleaned should be placed in a sealed plastic bag and put in an outdoor trash container.

Apply diatomaceous earth (DE) to cracks and crevices where bed bugs may hide, including the spaces around beds and behind wall plates. Also, vacuum all surfaces of upholstered furniture and draperies.

Identifying the Infestation

Bed bugs can be hitchhikers, carried on the clothes, backpacks, and purses of people who have been in places where they live — like hotels or college dorm rooms. They can also crawl into homes through cracks the width of a credit card or through crevices in walls, furniture, and carpeting. They’re particularly at risk of gaining a foothold in high-density residential areas, where they can spread from one apartment to the next.

If you suspect you have bed bugs, the first step is to carefully inspect your bedroom furniture, including the seams, tufts, and labels on mattresses and box springs. You should also look closely at your headboard, checking for cracks and crevices that they can hide in. You’ll also want to look at other furniture in your bedroom, especially anywhere people sleep or rest – like dressers and end tables.

Blood spots on your sheets are among the earliest signs of a bed bug infestation. These dark spots are from crushed bed bug bodies that can’t digest their blood fast enough as you move and turn in your sleep. You may also notice small rust-colored spots resembling sparse splattered paint droplets. These are shed exoskeletons that show up as the bugs molt and grow through their life cycle, Fredericks says.

Another early indicator of a bed bug problem is a musty odor that gets stronger as the infestation grows. The odor is due to the mix of fecal excrement from crushed bugs and the pheromones that these insects emit as they mature. Technical resources often cite a sweet smell as well, but this is less reliable as an indicator of bed bug presence for humans, Fredericks says.

Once you’ve checked these basic areas, the next step is to vacuum and thoroughly clean your home to remove any live bed bugs or eggs. You’ll also want to use a mattress encasement that will starve the bugs by keeping them away from their main food source. For this reason, you should encase your mattress and box spring as soon as you spot any indications of an infestation and continue to use a mattress encasement for at least six months.

Treating the Infestation

If you have bed bugs, enlisting help from pest control experts is often the best solution. They will use steam, heat, or other methods to kill the insects and their eggs. They may also use chemical treatments. In most cases, the chemicals will need to be applied throughout the home to eliminate the bugs completely.

A professional can also identify a bed bug infestation by looking at the insect itself or saving an egg or fecal spot (looks like dark red or brown smears) in a pill bottle so it doesn’t get crushed and lost. The critters are oval, about the size of an apple seed, flat from top to bottom, and have six legs. They live in the nooks and crannies of box springs, mattresses, and bed frames, but they can crawl through cracks as wide as a business card, so they may be found under clocks and pictures or behind wall outlets.

You can help prevent bed bug infestation by washing all bedding and clothes in hot water, drying them on the highest dryer setting, and vacuuming beds and rooms daily, including around windows, molding, and furniture. Place a mattress encasement on your bed, and consider placing interceptors under the legs of bed frames, sofas, and plush chairs. These devices trap the insects when they are trying to migrate up or down the legs of the furniture, preventing them from reaching your bed. They can be purchased from a pest control company or online and are typically made of plastic.

Bed bugs can enter your home in clothing, luggage, and bags; on pets and rodents; or as hitchhikers on you or your friends and family as you travel, shop at malls, or visit public places such as restaurants, movie theaters, or doctors’ offices. They may even hide in unsuspecting areas such as store dressing rooms and cushioned public transportation seats.

They can also travel from apartment to apartment, as they easily fit into small spaces between walls. If you live in a multi-family dwelling, talk to your neighbors about the possibility of their having the bugs, and be especially vigilant when going to your neighbors’ homes, as they could carry them into yours on their return trips. Caulk or seal cracks where needed, especially around light switches and outlet plates.

Preventing the Infestation

It’s important to prevent a bed bug infestation from starting in the first place. While it may seem difficult, there are many steps you can take to keep them at bay. First, check often for signs of an infestation. Look for bugs, dark red fecal spots, and light-colored shed skins in the folds of your bedding. Also, check other fabric items like pillows, curtains, and mattress pads for signs of infestation. And be sure to look under furniture legs, in the crevices of wall plates, and behind and underneath kick-plates on chairs and couches.

Vacuum and clean frequently, at least once a day, particularly areas that are most likely to harbor bed bugs. Wash sheets, pillowcases, and blankets regularly and put them in the dryer in the highest heat setting for 30 minutes. If you use a dehumidifier, it can help to remove humidity and prevent moisture build up that attracts bed bugs. You can also install encasements on your mattress and box spring to protect them from pests, although they will not get rid of an infestation.

Another way to control an infestation is to use Diatomaceous Earth (DE). This natural, white powder-like substance kills insects by making it hard for them to breathe. Apply it around your home, using the instructions on the label. DE should be applied to all areas where bed bugs can hide, including cracks and crevices in the walls and floor, spaces under furniture, on or under mattresses, under and in closets, and in the seams of doorways and frames. DE takes one to two weeks to kill the bed bugs and several months to completely eradicate an infestation.

Finally, be sure to avoid bringing in used items like clothing, electronics, or furniture. Always visually inspect used items before taking them into your home, and never leave donated items sitting out in the open where someone else can pick them up. When it comes to renting a room or apartment, be sure to talk to the landlord about any bed bug problems that have been reported.

Getting Rid of the Infestation

First, make sure you are able to identify the bugs you’re dealing with. There are many insects that look similar to bed bugs, and it’s important to be sure you’re dealing with this particular pest – because control methods will differ based on the species. Read our complete guide to identifying bed bug pictures and signs to be certain you’re seeing what you think you’re seeing.

Once you’re certain you’ve got bed bugs, the first step is to thoroughly clean and treat the affected areas. Start with the bedroom itself, making sure to inspect the mattress and box spring closely – including the trim and seams, as well as the cracks of the frame headboard and footboard. Also, look at all the other furniture in the room, especially dressers and nightstands, where bugs can hide. Don’t forget to check underneath items like storage containers, books, toys, and other clutter.

If you have a heavy infestation, you may want to consider vacuuming every surface in the room, along with the baseboards and cleaning up any spills or stains immediately. Wash all sheets, pillowcases, and clothing in hot water – as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit if possible – to kill any bugs or eggs that are present. Anything that cannot be washed should be sealed in plastic bags until you can get it treated – ideally for a few months to be certain the pests die off.

Finally, seal cracks around baseboards, light sockets, and furniture with caulking to prevent the bed bugs from returning and re-infesting your space. In addition, remove and throw away any heavily infested furniture – such as sofas or mattresses – and mark them clearly as unusable so that nobody else picks them up and brings them home.

Finally, if you’ve found the bugs themselves or signs of them (like dark red excrement and shed skins), use insecticide to treat the areas where they’ve been seen. Always be careful when handling chemicals and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for application to ensure safety and effectiveness. We recommend starting in the perimeter of the room and working your way to the bed, as this reduces the likelihood that treatment materials will be disturbed by your own movements and scattered into untreated areas.