The first thing to know is that there’s a difference between spotting a bed bug and having a full-blown infestation. An infestation is when bed bugs have taken up residence in places such as a hotel or dorm room, multi-unit apartment, or single-family home—basically, anyplace that has a consistent food source—human blood—says Jody Green, PhD, an urban entomologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The way you’re more likely to run into the bugs is in the form of an “introduction,” says Green, which sounds nicer but still panic-provoking. “An introduction is when a bed bug is dropped or crawls off an item that may have been from an infestation.” What you do next can be the difference in ending the problem quickly or the bugs establishing a foothold in your house, leading to an infestation.
Step 1: Don’t panic
If you wake up with a bite or see a crawler, don’t assume it’s a bed bug, says Green: “Panic possesses people to throw out their mattress and all their things.” That can be unwise, she says, since hauling infested furniture out can distribute the bugs around the house or allow them to spread to neighbors. If you see a bed bug—and this is what they look like—capture it and place it in a sealed container. Then call a pest control company to get confirmation that it is what you think it is. Because one bed bug does not equal an infestation, says Green, don’t rush to the store to buy an insect bomb or repellents; these can actually make the problem worse.
Step 2: Do an inspection
If you don’t have a specimen but suspect you might have bed bugs, grab a flashlight. “Do an inspection of the bed first and work outward,” says Green. Look for bed bug evidence like molted skins, eggs, feces (looks like an ink mark), nymphs, and bed bugs in the seams of the mattress, box spring or sofa/recliner. Check the headboard and frame too and the nearby nightstand, including the drawers. Finally, check the cracks and crevices near the bed including the molding. If you see any evidence of bed bugs, you’ll want to contact a licensed pest professional immediately. (If you live in an apartment, contact your landlord first.) “Bed bugs are one of the most difficult pests to control and cannot be effectively treated with do-it-yourself measures, says Brittany Campbell, PhD, an entomologist with the National Pest Management Association (NPMA). Here are some more signs of bed bug infestation you may be missing.
Step 3: Declutter
Even if the exterminators are on the way, it’s a good idea to deal with any clutter—like stacked magazines or boxes on the floor and piles of clothing—because bed bugs love it. Cleaning up makes it easier for the exterminator to treat your house; also, a clutter-free house is easier to monitor for future infestations. If you’re tempted to hustle your stacks of books or clutter out to the garage or into a closet, know that you could be spreading the bugs. Instead, take a deep breath, put on some gloves, and carefully bag up everything that can be washed into sturdy garbage bags and seal them with duct tape. Simply tying off a bag won’t work—the bugs can easily escape. If you have lots of clutter, don’t believe that’s the reason you have an infestation: This is what actually causes bed bugs.
Step 4: Vacuum
“Vacuum rooms thoroughly including often overlooked sites such as drapes, the back side of pictures, and the underside of furniture, all known hiding spots for bed bugs if you suspect any of these items to be infested,” says Campbell. Don’t forget to give floor molding a good vacuum. (If you see loose molding, don’t repair it until you talk to your exterminator—you don’t want to seal or caulk cracks with live bed bugs in them.) Use the crevice tool to do the seams on the mattress and box spring, the recliners, and even the sofa. Don’t use a stiff brush attachment as the bed bugs and eggs may stick to the brush and transfer to another surface. If your vacuum is bagless, carefully empty into a trash bag and put it in the trash outside. If your vacuum has a bag, carefully place the bag into a trash bag and put it in the trash outside. Wash the vacuum tools in hot and soapy water. Store the vacuum in a plastic garbage bag and seal it with duct tape until it can be inspected for bed bugs.
Step 5: Make your bed an island
Although you’ll be tempted to toss your mattress and start fresh, you may not have to. Your exterminator may treat the bed, depending on the treatment option you choose. If it will be a few days before the exterminator gets there, you can isolate your bed. First, move it a few feet from the wall. Remove all your bedding and place it in a sealed plastic bag until you get to your washing machine. Run the bedding through a hot wash cycle and then dry it for at least 30 minutes on the hottest setting—soapy water won’t kill the bed bugs, but the heat will. Now, place a bed bug-proof encasement over your mattress and box springs. Make sure the zipper closes tightly so any bed bugs trapped inside will stay there and starve to death—which, by the way, can take up to a year, so don’t peek. Tuck all sheets in so they don’t touch the floor and place bed bug interceptors under each leg of the bed (you can do the same for furniture). Interceptors trap bed bugs and help in monitoring efforts. Keep the area under the bed clear.
Step 6: Store the right stuff
In case you’re worried: You probably won’t have to part with your cherished mementos. However, if an item is infested with bed bugs, like a book or a piece of upholstery, it may be tough to save. Exterminators can help you with this, and they will have a detailed plan and checklist for you to complete. Should you have to stay away from home during treatment, says Campbell, plan to only take items you absolutely need; everything you leave will get treated. Just make sure anything you take is bug-free. “Smaller items can be placed in plastic bags for transport, like clothes, if you need to do laundry. As with the bedding, anything that can be laundered should be washed in hot water and dried on the hottest setting for at least 30 minutes to kill bed bugs. Be sure to use a clean bag once items are returned after a treatment to prevent bringing bed bugs back into a home,” she says.
Step 7: Store items that can’t be washed
Depending on the type of treatment, you may need to remove artwork and decor from the walls. Stuffed animals, picture frames, electronics, books, and other items that can’t be laundered should be placed in a clear tote with an airtight seal until the exterminator can thoroughly inspect them—and potentially treat them in the container. Ask the pest management company what treatment is best suited for your items. Avoid having to go through all of this again by following these bed bug infestation tips prevention tips from entomologists.
How do the experts get rid of bed bugs?
Their two top weapons are chemicals and heat. While fumigation is one solution, it’s not as popular because of the cost, the tenting, and the toxic gas that permeates the house. Other options include spraying surfaces with chemicals that will repel or kill the bugs and others that kill the bugs on contact. This approach focuses on sleeping areas and where the bugs are active. “Eggs are not susceptible to chemicals, but usually there is at least one follow-up treatment, and its residual in the targeted areas and can kill bed bugs for a while,” says Green. “Heat treatments use commercial heaters, fan and thermal detectors to verify all areas have been brought to lethal temperatures for the required amount of time. This kind of heat kills all life stages of bed bugs and can be used in the entire house.” Once the bed bugs are gone, use these home remedies to keep them out for good.