Everything You Need to Know to Keep Bedbugs Out of Your Life

Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite… the bedtime nursery rhyme you may remember from your childhood could now be keeping you awake at night—bedbug infestations are all over the headlines!

Because the powerful pesticide DDT so effectively eradicated them decades ago, bedbugs hadn’t been much of a problem here in the US until recently. But now that DDT (and other pesticides like it) are no longer used and travelers are bringing bedbugs back from areas where these pests remain common, bedbugs are back—with a vengeance. A joint study by the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) and the University of Kentucky found that 95% of pest-management professionals have been called in for at least one bedbug infestation in the past year compared with just 25% 10 years ago.

I contacted Jerome Goddard, PhD, associate extension professor of medical and veterinary entomology at Mississippi State University, to learn more about this pesky pest problem and ask his advice on how to avoid unwelcome encounters.

Bedbug Basics

We should start with a bit of bedbug biology. Each of these tiny critters is about the size and color of an apple seed. They feed on blood, typically at night, while the unknowing “host” is asleep. Their bites are painless, and most people don’t even know they’ve been bitten, Dr. Goddard told me. But others have an allergic reaction that leads to itchy red welts (similar to mosquito bites) that arise a day or so later.

The one bit of good news about bedbugs is that their bites are only annoying. They don’t transmit disease. “Bedbugs are nuisance biters who suck blood,” Dr. Goddard said, although there is a health hazard when a person scratches the bites, breaking the skin, which can lead to infection. (Instead of scratching, soothe the itch with an anti-itch hydrocortisone cream.)

The obvious best bedbug advice is to avoid them. While news reports tell of bedbugs in clothing stores, movie theaters and office buildings, the truth is that for the vast majority of people, the likeliest exposure is still hotels and motels. Dr. Goddard advises that travelers should take a few minutes (it doesn’t take much more than that) to check accommodations before you settle in and get comfortable.

What to do

Place your luggage on a hard surface,away from the bed and any upholstered furniture. Luggage stands and tabletops are good choices, as is the bathroom.

Unmake the bed.Strip off the blankets, sheets and pillowcases so that you can check the mattress and box spring. Examine the crease along the cords that run around the top and bottom of the mattress. Look not only for bugs but also for black specks (signs of their droppings) or reddish-brown ones (signs of blood from engorged insects). These can vary in size and shape, from a pencil tip to a large smear (a sign of a major infestation).

Do a visual check of the room,again looking not only for the bugs but the black or blood-colored evidence that signals their presence. Since most infestations begin within 10 feet of the bed, examine that area especially closely (paying particular attention around and behind the headboard) but also look at baseboards and carpeted areas.

Ask for a different roomif you find any signs of bedbugs. Do not accept the room next door because bedbugs are able to travel through unseen openings between rooms.

According to Dr. Goddard, the good news is, if your inspection doesn’t turn up any signs of an infestation, you’re probably safe.

What’s Worse—the Problem or the Solution?

If you or another family member has brought bedbugs home, roll up your sleeves. You’ve got work to do, and Dr. Goddard strongly recommends finding a professional exterminator with experience with bedbugs to help. It’s not a do-it-yourself project—but it’s not one that you can totally outsource either. Here’s how it works:

Before the exterminator can treat your home, you’ll need to remove excess clutter to minimize hiding places. Laundry and soft goods, such as stuffed toys and pillows, should be put into plastic containers that can be sealed. After your home is exterminated, you will need to run these items through a dryer set on high (over 120°F ) for 20 minutes, which will kill the bugs. The clothes do not need to be washed first.

Depending on the treatment, you may need to throw out and replace mattresses, box springs and upholstered furniture. Ask your exterminator whether pesticide can be used on your items.

Once you’ve performed this initial cleanup, the exterminator will come to spray your home (usually several times over a few weeks) with pesticide such as pyrethrins or organic phosphates. While these are all EPA-approved, it’s important to realize that these are toxic chemicals that can negatively impact human health in a number of ways. For instance: Pyrethrins can cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, runny or stuffy nose, chest pain, difficulty breathing, rash, itching or blisters. To learn more about general and specific dangers of pesticides, contact the EPA’s National Pesticide Information Center, or 800-858-7378.

Be prepared for the most painful part:The typical price for the pesticide treatment is $1,200 for the first two visits—often more visits are required.

A NonToxic Option

There is a nontoxic treatment—but it is more expensive ($1,500 and up), less effective and, frankly, in most cases impractical. It involves sealing your entire home (doors, windows and any cracks to the outside) and then quickly heating up the entire living space and all its contents to 120°F or higher. What’s the problem with this?As soon as the bedbugs feel the heat, they’ll decamp to pockets where the temperature stays cooler than 120° within the house, and it is extremely difficult to eliminate all such pockets. Also items that can’t tolerate extreme heat (framed photos and artwork) have to be removed—and these can harbor hidden bugs.

Want More Info?

Dr. Goddard suggests visiting the entomology Web site of the University of Kentucky to learn more. It features detailed images of bedbugs and helpful information on detecting signs of infestation. It’s not exactly bedtime reading… but on the other hand, knowing that you’ve done all that you can to keep bedbugs away will help you sleep all the more soundly, no matter where you are bedding down for the night!