Everyone is looking for bed bug prevention methods. These pests have made a dramatic reappearance in the U.S. and other western countries during the last few years, after having been nearly eradicated by DDT and other now banned pesticides.
Because bed bugs are inundating a new generation of people who have no experience with them, this seems like a scary new problem. But there’s no reason to panic—many myths surround bed bugs, and there are steps you can take to prevent or manage an infestation.
What’s So Bad About Bed Bugs?
Bed bugs somehow have the reputation of being disease carriers that live and thrive in filthy conditions.
However, there has never been a single instance of bed bug to human disease transmission. The most serious effects of bed bug bites occur in people with a heightened sensitivity to the insects.
These people may break out in a rash or even hives, similar to what happens with bee stings in sensitive people. But for others, bites may produce no effect, or a small red spot, or one or more itchy spots. Excessive scratching may result in infection, so it’s important to treat the bite as a bite: keep the area clean and cover it if scratching is a problem.
Bed bugs will choose to nest and feed wherever there are blood sources and places to hide—hygiene and sanitation have nothing to do with it. The most immaculately-kept mansion is as susceptible to infestation as a ghetto apartment.
It is also not true that bed bugs are invisible. They are reclusive, and don’t come out to feed until they detect motionless targets (such as when we’re asleep, or sitting on the couch watching television), but the feeding adults are large enough to observe. But since you can’t feel their bite, it’s unlikely you’ll notice one crawling around when your attention is elsewhere.
So in a lot of ways, bed bugs are no worse than the myriad other insects we are already accustomed to. Mosquitos, ants, flies, spiders—all find a way into our homes at one time or another, and given a chance all would take root there and create an infestation. But we’re familiar with these pests and know how to tell when things are getting out of hand—and what to do about it.
Informing yourself about bed bugs will help you deal with them just as effectively.
The First Step: Bed Bug Prevention
First, you must realize that it is next to impossible to “prevent” bed bugs from entering your home. There is no such thing as a bed bug repellent (if there were, believe me, it would be advertised heavily).
It’s certainly better (and cheaper!) to prevent a beg bug invasion from occurring then to treat a bed bug problem after it occurs.
Bed bugs are hitchhikers—they come in through your front door, with guests, pets, delivery and service people, maybe even your own items when you return from a trip. You can’t lay down a strip of something and keep them out of the house, as you can with ants or mice.
Unless you’re willing to ban anyone from stepping foot into your home without undergoing a de-bugging regime, you’re stuck with the risk that bed bugs will one day pay a visit.
Control What You Bring Home
What you can do is control what you yourself bring home. You can take this as far as is practical for you. Since bed bugs have been found on public transportation systems in places like New York city, you might feel it’s worthwhile to walk straight to the washing machine when you get off the subway and dump all your clothes in. But it’s doubtful anybody would take their bed bug prevention methods to this extreme.
Travel Bed Bug Aware
A more rational move would be to realize that travel exposes us to bed bugs, and take special precautions in hotels or when welcoming out-of-town guests.
- Use the luggage rack in your room—don’t let items touch the floor.
- Carefully inspect drawers (pull them out and look beneath and above) before storing clothes in them.
- Inspect the bed for bed bugs, and pull it away from the headboard, which is usually mounted on the wall. Don’t forget to check the linens and any upholstered furniture in the room, too.
- Unpack directly into the washing machine when you get home. Wash and dry on hottest settings.
- Inspect all your luggage and bags. Steam clean if possible, or put them in the dryer on high heat.
Buy A “Bed Bug” Encasement
Bed encasements serve two purposes:
- If bed bugs are already in a bed, they trap them there
- They make it easier to check for new bed bugs
Available from pest control companies or over the internet, a bed encasement is a cover for the mattress and box spring together, reducing the number of places bed bugs can find to hide in a bed. They are also light-colored, so signs of new bed bugs are easier to spot.
The typical bed is a wonderful place for bed bugs because there are so many warm, dark places to seek cover. They’re also difficult to check thoroughly because they have to be disassembled and fabric must be pulled back. So bed bugs in a bed rarely find themselves disturbed. The encasement forces the bugs to nest in areas that are easily accessible for humans to investigate.
Anything you can do in the home to make it easier to clean and inspect will serve you well in your bed bug prevention efforts. When cabinets and tables are covered with knick-knacks, books, snow globes or other decorative items, we’re less likely to move all that and really check the back, bottom and insides of the the furniture, as is necessary to really make a good bed bug inspection.
Make Sure Second Hand Is Safe
Before bringing second-hand furniture into your home—no matter where it came from—be sure to examine it thoroughly.
These are specially-designed wells that are meant to sit under your bed’s legs (or any other furniture you suspect bed bugs might try to access). Some percentage of bugs climbing up or down the furniture will become trapped in the wells. If you don’t have many bed bugs, this could be a semi-effective way to control the population, but interceptors are mainly a monitoring device so that you can see if bed bugs are in your home.
Nobody wants to hear it, but the reality of bed bugs in our lives is that we’ll have to inspect and monitor diligently to find bed bugs so that we can control them. In times past when bed bugs were an accepted part of life, people regularly took apart their homes for cleaning, weather permitting—rugs, beds and furniture all outside, thoroughly beaten, cleaned and treated with things like kerosene or boiling water.
We don’t have to go that far, but anything you can do to reduce the places where bed bugs can hide and make it easier for you to find evidence of them will help. Seal up cracks between walls and baseboards, and baseboards and floors. Remove or repair torn wallpaper. Fill screw holes in furniture.
You might also contract with a pest control company to make periodic inspections. New tools and techniques are being developed all the time to detect the presence of bed bugs, and some of these could save you loads of time and anxiety.
Second Step: Bed Bug Treatments
The (Hard) Truth Behind Treating Bedbugs
Another common misperception about bed bugs is that there is no way to get rid of them once they invade your home. That’s just not true—bed bugs can be killed by a variety of chemical and non-chemical methods, and there are steps you can take to minimize the opportunities they have for re-establishing themselves in your home.
This misperception is probably fueled by the fact that there is no one, single product that will kill all bed bugs, in all stages of development, from all areas of a dwelling. Because there is no single one cure-all product, its quite difficult to get rid of bed bugs in one go.
Eradicating bed bugs is a fairly complex, labor-intensive process. There are over 300 products currently registered with the EPA for use against bed bugs. Although the majority of these products can be used by consumers, in most cases they really require the expertise of a professional pest control technician to design an effective campaign. You would be throwing money away to buy effective products that don’t work because you didn’t understand how to use them in concert with other products.
One thing that will not work is buying over-the-counter insect killers or repellents. The “bug bombs” and other such products are probably lethal to most insects, but their delivery method is not effective against bed bugs. Bed bugs hide in very small cracks and crevices until such time they feed—and then they dart out quickly and return to their safe spots. Unfortunately, when people try these products and get unsatisfactory results, they tend to get more and start exceeding label directions for their use. Poisonings and house fires have resulted from this kind of misuse.
If a product does not specifically say that it is effective against bed bugs, and give explicit directions for where it should be used and how it should be applied, don’t waste your money. It is also futile to buy a product that treats mattresses, for instance, when you might also have bed bugs that live in window casings or in a wallspace. This is another reason a qualified professional can both help you identify the extent of your problem, and help you design a program of the safest, most effective chemicals to treat it.
Bed bugs can effectively be treated, but bed bug treatments are much more effective and have a higher chance of working if treatments are enacted shortly after bed bugs have been introduced the environment. You may require multiple treatment sessions (2 or 3 is the typical number banded about by pest control authorities) to fully cull the bed problem.
The different types of treatments work differently. The one type of treatment that will absolutely eliminate a bed bug infestation is structural bed bug fumigation. However, this is a costly and time consuming effort that most people won’t pursue unless there is no other recourse. For some people (apartments), this method might not even be an option.
Here’s a short list of the products available to treat bed bugs, both chemical and non-chemical bed bug treatments:
Heat Treatments for Bed Bugs (aka Thermal Pest Eradication)
Heat treatments are one of the most common and arguably effective bed bug treatments. Bed bugs are more vulnerable than other insect pest to heat and will die if exposed to temperatures over 45 degrees celcius.
The Washing Machine and Drier Method DIY Style
Your washer and dryer are effective at delivering the kind of heat for the required period to kill bed bugs found in clothes, stuffed animals and toys, curtains and other fabrics. Always use the hottest setting for both washing and drying. Stuff whatever is “infected” with bed bugs into the drier and make sure to leave it on the highest heat setting and for an hour or more.
Bed Bug Steam Treatments (Professional or DIY Treatment)
Steam heat is a tool used by professionals to clean larger areas such as mattresses, carpets, drapery and so forth so it’s likely a pest extermination professional will be doing the steaming, though you can “rent” steamers if you wish. You’ll have to “steam” your house differently than you normally would to kill bed bugs though.
The steam treatment method is good for location specific treatments (you know the exact area the bed bugs have infested. It’s less effective for general area treatments (say bed bugs infest a room, but you don’t know where specifically).
Steam heat as used for a bed bug treatment is more tedious than the steaming you might be used to—it’s important to apply the steam heat to every inch for a sufficient time to kill the bugs and their eggs, and can take many hours. If you’re certain you’ve isolated the bugs to an area that can be steam-cleaned, go ahead and try it yourself—but get some input from a professional as to the tool to use and the best technique.
As a rule of thumb, there are a few guide lines you want to follow when selecting a steam cleaner to kill bed bugs. Ensure the steam cleaner has the following qualities:
- Steamer offers a continuous flow of heat (no lags between steam bursts)
- Capable of a high temperature, low vapor type of steam blast
- Produces a dry steam to eliminate the possibility of mold forming from the treatment
- Gentle steam output (if the steam blasts are too powerful, bed bugs could be blown further into cracks)
Heat Enclosure Bed Bug Treatments (Professional Treatment)
Heat enclosures have also been designed to treat large items like furniture or entire rooms. These are basically temperature-controlled boxes that will deliver the target temperature for a specified period of time. These are definitely tools for the professional—make sure you ask about and get guarantees for the potential for damage to items.
There are good advantages to bed bug heat treatments. Specifically
- Heat works in areas where chemicals can’t be used or fail to work.
- Heat treatments are household friendly – no toxins
- Can kill every bed bug life stage from eggs to adult bed bugs
- Bed Bugs won’t move to reinvest other areas
- Furniture/Rooms usable the next day
Cold Treatments for Bed Bugs
Cold treatments are non chemical and can be used to treat objects such as toys and books that you would not want to treat with chemicals or heat.
Very cold temperatures will likely kill bed bugs though some of the treatment methods are NOT clinically proven, unlike the heat treatments. There are mixed reports about these sort of treatments though many people will agree that exposing bed bugs to sub zero freezing temperatures for a long period of time will kill them. The question is how cold and how long. Another difficulty is trying to to manufacture the correct cold conditions to kill bed bugs on large objects or entire rooms.
The idea of “cold treatments” may lead you to believe that you can simply pile belongings outside on a cold day and be done with the bed bug problem, but it’s not so simple. The core temperature of the item must be at a low level for a period of time to be effective—and with factors like sunlight, the cunning ability of the bedbug to crawl deep into interior spaces which will be more insulated than the outside temperature, and the uncertainty about how to measure the “core temperature” of an object (say bed mattress, dresser, etc), this one is chancy.
If you live in a area that experiences sub zero freezing during winter, you might be able to put out a couch or bed in the cold for a week or store furniture in a garage with the door left open. However, you’ll have to ask yourself if the damage the cold may have on the items is worth the cure. And there is always the risk that the bed bugs won’t actually end up dead.
For cold to work, you will probably need to have access to temperatures below 0C. At around this temperature, reports are that you will need 4-5 days. There are anecdotal reports that say the colder the temperature (like -20+ C), the faster bed bugs will die. However, your average “freezer” won’t get down to these temperatures. You’ll need a serious freezer with a deep freeze setting.
The Freezer DIY Method (DIY Treatment)
This is really only practical for an item specific treatment. But if you have items that will fit into a deep freeze, that’s a perfectly acceptable way to debug them—turn it down to -23 degrees Fahrenheit or less and leave it for 4 or 5 days. Regardless of how resistant bed bugs are to chemicals, enough cold will certainly kill them. You can certainly try with a regular freezer, but our advice would be to leave the item in for at least a week as it’s hard to say what temperature you’ll need to eradicate the bed bugs completely, especially in a freezer that does not drop to substantial subzero temperatures.
Anecdotally, there are reports of people who live in colder climates can use the outdoor temperatures to kill bed-bug infested objects (move furniture/beds to garage and keep garage door open in freezing temperatures).
Cyonite Gas Treatment (Professional Treatment)
This treatment WILL kill bedbugs, unlike the hit or miss “try and freeze bed bugs with cold temperature treatment strategies.”
Cryonite is a type of carbon dioxide that once comes in contact with bed bugs will cause them to deep freeze, starting from the inside of the bug. The details of exactly how this happens is best suited for a science class, but the short of it is that the cryonite crystals attach to the bug exoskeleton and convert to C02 gas; this requires energy, energy that’s siphoned from the bug itself. The chemical reaction causes the bug cell wall to crystallize with ice, killing it. This will be a treatment that some pest control companies might utilize. It’s not really a DIY treatment, however.
Like the Heat Treatments, there are some pretty big advantages to the Cyonite Gas Treatment.
- No need to leave the house during the treatment
- No toxic treatment: no actual chemicals present
- No cleanup after treatment required
Like any other pest control treatment, you’ll need to put your clothes in bags, clean the area after treatment (vacuuming, wash clothes, etc).
Chemical Bed Bug Treatments
Bed bugs are susceptible to chemical treatments, though they have over the past decades developed immunities to many of the common pesticides that used to be effective against them. The chemical that was used to nearly eradicate them was DDT — now banned from usage in most western countries. There are other chemicals that are highly effective, but every one of them is toxic to human health. There have even been a few reported deaths from people sleeping in rooms sprayed with some of these toxic chemicals (in countries that don’t follow the ban).
That leaves us with chemicals that are not (as) hazardous to human health; unfortunately, these less harmful chemicals are also way less effective against bed bugs. And these hardy bugs have also developed immunities to quite a few of these chemicals now.
There are a few treatments employed that involve chemicals of some sort that are effective against bed bugs. The most effective involve gas or vapors of some sort to kill the bed bugs rather than a liquid chemical applied directly to the body of a the bug (as would be the case if a pesticide spray was used).
Bed Bug Fumigation (Professional Treatment)
A effort intensive extermination that involves sealing up an entire area (often a whole house or room) and pumping in gas to eradicate the bed bugs. Also doubles as a termite killer. This is by far the most effective bed bug treatment known and will almost always solve the bed bug problem. However, depending on the location of the bed bug infestation and the manner of dwelling, bed bug fumigation might simply not be an option available to you. Fumigation is also costly. Also note that this is certainly not a Do-It-Yourself bed bug treatment but something a pest control company will utilize. The equipment is large, bulky, expensive and requires expertise to use effectively (and to use without damaging goods).
Smoke Treatment (Professional Treatment)
Smoke treatments use Synthetic pyrethrins. These are chemicals that both kill existing bed bugs and have a residual effect so that a treatment lasts longer. Some pest control companies will offer this smoke treatment. You must evacuate the house for at least 4 hours after a smoking session. This is a professional treatment, not a DIY one.
Insecticides / Pesticides (Professional or DIY Treatment)
Also known as pesticides, chemicals designed to kill insects. These are usually over-the-counter products that might take the form of powders, sprays, solids, or liquids. There’s a wide range of materials bed bug pesticides are made from – both organic or inorganic materials.
- Hydropene –An insect growth regulator that disrupts the reproductive cycle of the bugs. This pesticide does not directly kill bed bugs, but rather prevents bed bugs from reaching their adult stage and reproducing. In essence, this is a time killer.
- Silica and Boric Acid — These are materials applied so they get on the bed bugs’ skin, dehydrating them and causing death. You’ll have to directly apply these materials to bed bugs and this can be a real problem. In reality, these products are generally less effective than the user might like because it’s quite simply almost impossible to apply these substances to ALL the bed bugs in a vinicity.
Depending on the type of pesticide used and the severity of the bed bug problem, you may want to leave killing bed bugs with pesticides to a professional exterminator; there are some DIY pesticides you can use, however. Just be aware that not all pesticides are effective against bed bugs and the critters have become more and more resistant to a whole wack of modern pesticides that used to be effective. The classic DDT treatment that was used to effectively wipe out bed bugs decades ago is no longer legal to use due to the harmful effects caused on children. Unfortunately, the DDT pesticide was/is the most effective bedbug treatment out there.
We’ve cooked up a big article about various Bed Bug Pesticides you should read if you are considering treating bed bugs with pesticides.
If you are looking to treat bed bugs with over-the-counter products it is a good idea to understand how each product works and the overall effectiveness of the product. Because bed bugs are a serious problem to deal with, you want to ensure you select a treatment option that will be effective for your infestation. Usually the over-the-counter products are used in combination with other treatment methods like steam or heat treatment. They often function as preventative treatments rather than primary treatment options designed to eliminate a bed bug infestation.
As long as you realize that Over-the-Counter treatments probably won’t solve your bed bug problem outright (unless you are lucky enough to get the bed bugs right as they move into your home and are in a single location that you effectively treat), they are worth a shot and certainly cheaper than the professional treatments that involve a pest control company.
Bed Bug Traps
One of the most common products available over-the-counter is bed bug traps. Bed bug traps are used commonly for the detection of bed bugs before and after a treatment has occurred. These traps are essentially small plastic cups that are coated with a tiny layer of pesticide free talc, giving the traps slippery inner walls. This design allows bed bugs to climb inside the cup without getting back out. The bed bug traps are placed on the base of furniture around the home to detect live bed bugs.
Bed bug traps are not used as an extermination method because they will not remove all of the bed bugs in a piece of furniture. The traps are commonly used after completing a bed bug treatment to see if the bugs have been eliminated from the furniture. You can also use these traps as a preventative measure to ensure bed bugs do not enter any furniture that has not been infested.
Also known as diatomite, Diatomaceous earth is a sedimentary rock that is finely processed to have a powder like consistency. This natural occurring product can be used as an insecticide replacement to kill bed bugs and other insects around the home. Because Diatomaceous earth does not have any harmful chemicals that many other treatment options have, it is safe for use in the home.
This powder like substance can be sprinkled on and around bed mattresses, sofa mattresses, chairs or any other furniture that might be contaminated with bed bugs. Diatomaceous earth is safe for homes that have pets and children. Many people who are into organics and natural treatments choose Diatomaceous earth as a safe alternative to the traditional chemical sprays that can have harmful effects if not used right.
The effectiveness of Diatomaceous earth will depend on a number of factors. Usually you will need to combine this treatment option with other options because it is not effective in eliminating bed bugs on its own. Used in the right circumstances Diatomaceous earth can be used to reduce the amount of bed bugs, however, it should not be used as the only treatment method for bed bugs. Diatomaceous earth should be used as a secondary treatment method rather than the primary treatment.
Bed Bug Sprays
People who avid travelers should consider the benefits of bed bug spray. These sprays are usually all natural products that are designed to work to protect people from bed bugs at night. Before going to bed in your hotel or hostel you simply need to spray around the bed, headboards, and along the baseboards to provide you with protection. The unique smell of the spray acts to repel any bed bugs that are in the area.
The sprays are usually best served as a travel companion to carry along on a trip where you suspect there could be a bed bug problem. However, if you have a bed bug infestation in your home, bed bug sprays are not a solution to get rid of the bug problem. You might be able to keep them off you for a few nights with the spray, but it will eventually wear off and you’ll be back to square one.
The Final Word
Now that you know how you can take steps to prevent bed bugs from infesting your home, and how to treat them if and when they do arrive, you can see that bed bugs are not the disaster the newspapers make them out to be. Just add them to your list of other pests you guard against, and keep searching out articles and reports about new treatments and bed bug prevention methods. Who knows—maybe somebody will come up with a repellent this time.