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What Bed Bugs Are And What They Do
- What can bed bugs do to me?
- What does a bed bug bite look like?
- Where did bed bugs come from?
- Where do bed bugs live?
How to Find Bed Bugs
- How do I find out if I have bed bugs?
- How do I have specimens identified?
- How did I get bed bugs in the first place?
How to Prevent Bed Bugs
- Can I prevent bed bugs with insecticides?
- How can I avoid bed bugs when traveling?
- What can I do if I just got back from a place where there might have been bed bugs?
- Will bed bugs actually travel on me?
- What should everyone know about bed bugs?
How to Deal With Bed Bugs
- I have bed bugs. What do I do?
- What are the legal repercussions of bed bugs?
- What shouldn’t I do when trying to eliminate bed bugs?
- What do I do with my pets if I have bed bugs?
- How long does it take to get rid of bed bugs?
- What should a pest control company do for me—and vice versa?
- How do I kill bed bugs without insecticides?
- How do I kill bed bugs with insecticides?
- How do I kill bed bug eggs?
The serious negative effects of bed bugs are more mental than physical, but the itchy bites can’t be ignored either.
The mental effects are stress and lack of sleep. (And then there’s delusory parasitosis—meaning the bugs really are gone, but you can’t shake the feeling that they’re still there.) Even if the thought of sleeping with bed bugs doesn’t keep you up at night, the time and money it takes to get rid of them can stress you out.
Bed bugs can be a public relations nightmare. You’d hope customers would respect a proactive hotel, motel, or landlord who tried to educate them before a problem came in, but that’s rarely the case. Simply the mention of bed bugs can deter customers.
And householders worry what friends, family, and neighbors will say if their problem becomes known. Bed bugs aren’t associated with filth or social status, but many people think they are.
Bed bugs aren’t known to transmit disease. And some people don’t even get marks when bit. But scratching bites can lead to a secondary infection. Resist the urge to scratch. People with health problems and children are more at risk for infection because their immune systems may be compromised or they can’t stop scratching.
You can’t describe the bites as looking only one way. Some look and feel like mosquito or flea bites. Some people don’t react at all. On the opposite extreme, others get big itchy welts that take two or more weeks to heal. There’s a myth that bed bug bites occur in threes (“breakfast, lunch, and dinner”), but it’s not true. Bites can occur singly, in clumps, or in a line. Bites can show up within hours—or two weeks later. Confirming an infestation on bites alone is impossible. You need evidence: a bed bug.
Bed bugs usually feed while people sleep, about an hour before dawn. But if they’re hungry and given the opportunity, they feed anytime. Feeding itself is painless—the bed bug’s saliva numbs the skin and makes the blood easier to drink. But later, many people react to the saliva, getting itchy bumps or rashes. After feeding for about five minutes, drawing only a drop or two of blood, bugs return to their hiding places. Although bed bugs can live for over a year without feeding, they typically seek blood every five to ten days.
The only way to know for sure what bit you is to find a bug and get it identified.
Bed bugs live off only blood—like mosquitoes do. They probably prefer to feed on people. But if people move out, bed bugs can survive by feeding on rats or mice—so control these pests, too. They’re attracted by warmth and the presence of carbon dioxide—what we animals breathe out. They usually feed before dawn, but given the opportunity, they may feed at any time of day or night.
Remember—not everyone reacts to bed bug bites. (Not everyone reacts to poison ivy, either.) You could get an itchy rash while your home companion does not.
If you think bed bugs bit you, have a pest management professional do a thorough inspection to determine whether an arthropod is in your living space. Or send samples to a diagnostic lab.
Bed bugs may have evolved when a close relative, the bat bug, switched to feeding on cave-dwelling humans. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans wrote about them. They were part of many peoples’ lives in the U.S. and around the world before World War II.
Then DDT came along. DDT seemed wonderful at the time. Unlike most of the insecticides sold in stores today, DDT had a lasting effect—a long residual effect. Insects died when they crawled where DDT was used, even if it had been there for weeks. Though most homeowners used DDT for large pests like cockroaches, it did the bed bugs in too. When the bed bugs came out to feed, there was something there to kill them.
Modern furnishings and appliances helped too. Bed bugs don’t care if a home is clean or messy. They just like good hiding spots—and food. When modern furniture came into style they had fewer hiding spots. Home appliances such as washing machines and vacuums helped keep them at bay. Bed bugs were a rarity in the US from the early 1950’s through the late 1990’s. A whole generation of people had never seen one.
By the mid 1970’s insecticides like DDT, which were blamed for environmental problems, were on the outs. The pest control industry began to use the environmentally friendly approaches common today. Using non-insecticide traps and monitors, blocking entry into homes, and using pest-specific, least-toxic insecticides became the staples of an integrated pest management (IPM) approach.
Bed bugs had been off the radar for so long they were almost forgotten. By the time anyone noticed, they were back in a big way. One can use certain traps or monitors to detect a population when it’s still small, but it may not be 100% effective. And since bed bugs travel on things such as luggage, souvenirs, and furniture we bring into our homes, it’s hard to block their entry.
Fortunately, some modern insecticides work well. Because these insecticides break down quickly—making them safer for humans—they may not be around to kill the bed bugs that hatch from eggs laid before the insecticide was applied. Two or more carefully targeted applications are the best way to eliminate bed bugs. Leave insecticides to the professionals—even the right ones, used incorrectly, can scatter bed bugs to other rooms. It would take an extremely capable and dedicated person to learn and do everything necessary to get rid of bed bugs on their own.
How to Find Bed Bugs
Any place with a high turnover of people spending the night—hostels, hotels near airports, and resorts—are most at risk. But the list continues… apartments, barracks, buses, cabins, churches, community centers, cruise ships, dormitories, dressing rooms, health clubs, homes, hospitals, jets, laundromats, motels, motor homes, moving vans, nursing homes, office buildings, resorts, restaurants, schools, subways, theaters, trains, used furniture outlets…. Bed bugs don’t prefer locations based on sanitation or people’s hygiene. If there’s blood, they’re happy.
Bed bugs and their relatives occur nearly worldwide. They became relatively scarce during the latter part of the 20th century, but their populations have resurged in recent years, particularly throughout parts of North America, Europe, and Australia.
What about in your home? Most stay near where people sleep, hiding near the bed, a couch or armchair (if that’s where you snooze)—even cribs and playpens. Their flat bodies allow them to hide in cracks and crevices around the room and in furniture joints. Hiding sites include mattress seams, bed frames, nearby furniture, or baseboards. Clutter offers more places to hide and makes it harder to get rid of them. Bed bugs can be found alone but more often congregate in groups. They’re not social insects, though, and don’t build nests.
How infestations spread through a home or within an apartment building differs from case to case. Inspect all adjacent rooms. Bed bugs travel easily along pipes and wires and the insides of walls can harbor them.
Before treating, you need to confirm that you have bed bugs. The only way to do that is to find a bug and get it identified.
Look in the most likely places first. We tell you how. If you find one, freeze it for identification or put it in a sealed jar with a 1 tsp. of rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer. Then stop looking—you don’t want to disrupt the bugs—and call a professional.
Have these on hand during the inspection:
- magnifier or hand lens
- a vial, pill bottle, or ziplock bag to hold specimens for identification
- tweezers or sticky tape to help grab the bugs
- gloves (vinyl, latex, etc.—or even a plastic bag over your hand)
- knife, index card, or credit card for swiping bed bugs out of cracks
- trash bags and tape for bagging infested items
- vacuum cleaner (just in case you find a large group): keep a few for identification and suck up the rest. Since the vacuum bag will have live bugs in it, take out the bag right away. Seal it in a plastic bag and throw it away.
Look for bed bugs in all their life stages: eggs, nymphs, and adults. Also look for cast skins and blood spots. But note: blood spots, hatched eggs, and cast skins may be from an infestation that’s been dealt with already. Live bed bugs are the only confirming evidence. Use a flashlight—even if the area is well lit—and work systematically. A magnifying glass will help you zoom in on hard to see spots. Start with one corner of the mattress and work around the piping, down the sides, and underneath. Do the same with the box spring. If you own the bed, slowly remove the dust cover (ticking) on the bottom of the box spring and seal in a trash bag. Next, inspect the bed frame. If you can take it apart, do so. Bed bugs could be hiding in the joints.
No bed bugs yet? Work out from the bed in a systematic way (clockwise or counter-clockwise) to the walls of the room. Look in the pleats of curtains, beneath loose pieces of wallpaper near the bed, the corners and drawers of desks and dressers, within spaces of wicker furniture, behind door, window, and baseboard trim, and in laundry or other items on the floor or around the room such as cardboard boxes. Inspect everything. Any crack, crevice, or joint a credit card edge could fit in could hide adult bed bugs. This routine gives you a systematic approach and increases the chance you’ll find evidence early on.
One last way to inspect—about an hour before dawn, lift the sheets and turn on a flashlight. It might lead to a discovery, but this method can also be unsettling.
If you don’t find bed bugs but bites continue or you find blood spots on bedding, contact a professional with bed bug experience and have them inspect.
Professional inspection may be done by a person or by a bed bug-sniffing dog and its handler. Dogs have a powerful sense of smell and can be trained to find bed bugs (which do give off an odor). They’re best used to find infestations. If used to tell whether bed bugs are gone, they may find old evidence rather than fresh. If you hire a handler and dog, be sure they’re accredited.
If you find bed bugs at home, it’s best to keep sleeping in the bed—or try to find someone who will sleep there. Packing up to spend time elsewhere could bring bugs to an uninfested area. And the bugs could move to neighboring rooms in search of a meal.
Put specimens in small, break-resistant containers such as a plastic pill bottle or a zipper-lock bag with 1 tsp of rubbing alcohol in it. Or tape them to a sheet of white paper with clear tape.
First, look at pictures on university websites. If you think it’s a bed bug, package it carefully to prevent damage and send to an expert for positive identification. Bed bugs have close relatives: poultry bugs, barn swallow bugs, bat bugs, and tropical bed bugs— to name a few. They too can feed on humans and act like bed bugs do. For accurate identification, send a sample—preferably several adults—to a Cooperative Extension diagnostic lab.
If the critter is, for example, a bat bug, call a professional wildlife control operator to find and remove bats, then prevent their re-entry.
Bed bugs come in as stowaways in luggage, furniture, clothing, pillows, boxes, and more when these are moved between dwellings. Moving out won’t solve the problem, since bed bugs will just come with you. In fact, while dealing with bed bugs it’s best not to sleep away from home. Used furniture, particularly bed frames and mattresses, are most likely to harbor bed bugs. Watch out for items found on the curb! Because they survive for many months without food, bed bugs could already be present in clean, vacant apartments.
In a few cases, bats or birds could introduce and maintain bed bugs and their close relatives—usually bat bugs and bird bugs.
The source of the infestation determines where your inspection should start. Look through these scenarios and see which fits:
- Only one bedroom: inspect that room first.
- People watch TV or snooze on a couch: check it after inspecting the bedroom.
- A traveler returned home: insects can hide in luggage and then crawl out when it’s dark and peaceful—begin where luggage was placed upon returning home.
- A used bed or piece of furniture (bought or from the curb) was brought into the house: inspect it first.
- The problem began after a visitor stayed overnight: inspect the beds that they slept in and where their luggage was placed. Next, inspect the nearest place where people sleep.
- An infestation persists after several treatments by a professional: bed bugs may come through the wall from a neighboring apartment. Inspect rooms that share a wall with a neighbor. (This scenario happens in large apartment complexes and hotels where management didn’t get adjacent rooms treated.)
- If the building has a laundry room, inspect it too.
- Home health aides come in frequently: bed bugs may have hitched a ride on their bags.
- Backpacks go to and from school: could have bed bugs. Inspect the bed or couch nearest the spot where backpacks are kept.
How to Prevent Bed Bugs
Insecticidal dusts will remain effective if not covered by other dust. As part of the IPM approach, routine spraying of insecticides is strongly discouraged. Bed bugs do not spread disease, but insecticides do pose risks. Only use them when the pest insect is confirmed and the least-toxic steps have been tried. As a preventative measure alternative to insecticides, inspect and clean regularly, keeping bed bug-hiding spots in mind.
Every traveler should learn about bed bugs. Always inspect before settling into any room. Pack a flashlight (even the keychain LED variety) and gloves to aid in your inspection. The inspection should focus around the bed. Start with the headboard, which is usually held on the wall with brackets—lift up 1 – 2 inches, then lean the top away from the wall to gain access to the back. If you’re traveling alone, someone on staff should help. After checking the headboard, check sheets and pillows for blood spots. Next, pull back the sheets. Check the piping of the mattress and box spring. Finally, look in and under the drawer of the bedside table. If all these places are clear, enjoy the night. The next morning, look for blood spots on the sheets—bed bugs poop soon after they feed.
If you find evidence, but no live bed bugs, the evidence may be old and doesn’t mean that the hotel is dirty. Tell the front desk discreetly what you found and ask for another room—one that doesn’t share a wall with the room you just vacated. Bed bugs are a PR nightmare for the hospitality industry. If you run to a competitor (who’s just as likely to have bed bugs) it makes it less likely that the industry will become more open about this issue. Communication is key. Ideally hotels and motels would pride themselves on their bed bug programs and show customers how to inspect to keep all parties bed bug free.
If you can avoid it, don’t unpack into drawers and keep luggage closed on a luggage rack pulled away from the wall. Never set luggage on the bed.
Launder your clothes before or as soon as these items are brought back into the home. If you found bed bugs after moving into a hotel room, you could ask the hotel to pay for laundering—and for steam-cleaning your luggage. The hotel may refuse, but it’s worth asking. Regardless, once home you should unpack on a floor that will allow you to see bed bugs—stay off carpets! Unpack directly into plastic bags for taking clothes to the laundry. Suitcases should be carefully inspected and vacuumed—freeze if possible.
It’s unlikely that a bed bug would travel on you or the clothes you are wearing. You move too much to be a good hiding place. Bed bugs are more likely to be spread via luggage, backpacks, briefcases, mattresses, and used furniture.
YOU CAN STOP THEIR SPREAD
Adults are ¼”, reddish-brown and flat. You can see them without magnification.
They like to hide in cracks and crevices.
Inspect sleeping areas—if you find a bed bug, STOP looking and contact a professional exterminator.
Do-it-yourself pest control could cause bed bugs to spread. Launder and freeze when possible.
Live bugs or eggs may drop off while moving things from one place to another—items with bed bugs should be sealed in a bag before moving them.
Avoid used furniture and items left on the curb—they might have bed bugs!
Tell your friends! Not warning others robs them of the chance to avoid bringing bed bugs into their homes and businesses.
How to Deal With Bed Bugs
Step back a minute. Because several different kinds of insects resemble bed bugs, specimens should be carefully compared with good reference images or sent to a professional entomologist for confirmation.
Next: make a plan. We’ll tell you how. You want to get rid of bed bugs, limit your exposure to insecticides, and minimize costs. Don’t get rid of stuff and don’t treat unless you have a plan. A big part of your plan: hire an experienced professional. Trust us, it’ll save you time and money in the long run. You’ll still have a lot to do—just leave the insecticides to the pros. Working as a team with a professional is the quickest way to get bed bugs out of your life.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is the way to go for pest control. It’s cost-effective, it works, and it lessens reliance on insecticides. Note: IPM doesn’t mean no insecticides. You should call a professional dedicated to IPM so the least amount of insecticides can be used and still work.
Here are the basics of bed bug IPM:
Inspection: ALWAYS inspect. Proper identification helps you know what to do and where to target your efforts. Along with looking, you should write down what you do and see. Use a reporting form to track what you’ve done. Having a history will help if more people become involved.
Educate yourself: find out about bed bug biology and behavior to become even more effective.
Cultural and Mechanical Control: This makes your home unwelcoming to bed bugs, blocks them from feeding, or at least makes finding them easier. Don’t skip these steps and go straight to insecticides. Examples:
- Choose furniture of plain design. A metal chair offers fewer places for a bed bug to hide than a wicker one.
- Don’t buy or pick up used furniture.
- Choose light-colored bedding—easier to see insects and blood spots.
- Don’t store things under beds. In fact, get rid of clutter anywhere near the bed.
- Use tightly fitting, zippered, bed-bug proof mattress and box spring encasements. Putting them in place ahead of time (proactively) makes bed bugs easier to see since encasements have no piping or tags and they’re light-colored. Putting them on during an infestation means no need to throw away the mattress and box spring. But … check periodically to be sure they haven’t torn.
- Vacuum regularly. Use an attachment to get in cracks and crevices.
- Maintain a gap between the walls and your bedroom and living room furniture.
- Seal cracks in wooden floors.
- Repair peeling wallpaper.
- Keep bedding and dust ruffles from touching the floor. Better yet, remove the ruffles.
- When returning from a trip, unpack on a light-colored, bare-wood or vinyl floor keeping an eye out for bed bugs. Put everything that traveled in a hot dryer for 60 minutes. Put things that can’t be heated in a freezer for two weeks. Everything else … inspect carefully!
- When you travel, inspect rooms, keep luggage closed and use luggage racks away from the wall—don’t leave things on the bed!
- See non-insecticidal control for more ideas.
Biological Control: New products have come to market that use commonly occurring fungal spores to kill bed bugs indoors. These products can be effective, but are limited in use to professionals. Ask your contractor about using a biopesticide as part of your IPM plan to eliminate bed bugs.
Chemical Control: Insecticides supplement, but don’t replace, your work. Get a pest management professional (PMP) involved. Licensed PMPs know what products, in what formulations, should be used—and where. PMPs know how to be selective and effective—fewer insecticides used and best results. Any insecticide used should be labeled for the pest and location where it is being used. Many products are not labeled for mattresses.
Hire only professional pest control companies with licensed PMPs who are affiliated with a state or national association. This helps ensure that the company stays up-to-date on the current practices and only uses legal insecticides. PMPs are trained for sensitive situations: people who are ill, children, pregnant women, pets, and more. They know how to properly apply insecticides. They also know best how to find bed bugs. If you use insecticides but they don’t work and then you still have to call in a professional, overall insecticide use will be higher. Plus, what you used could drive bed bugs into new areas—making removal a longer and more expensive process.
Monitoring: Regularly inspecting the area of infestation and any bed bug traps laid around can help show:
- If control is working.
- Whether bed bugs have been brought back in.
- If mattress encasements have torn.
- Whether you could improve your cleaning, laundry or other practices.
Keep a record of what you find every time you inspect for bed bugs. If the problem is persistent, records may show that you have overlooked a source or a hiding spot. Records improve success in pest management.
The question, “Who’s responsible for a bed bug infestation?” has no clear answer. It’s hard even to identify who’s technically at fault because bed bugs can enter a space in so many ways. Landlords and property owners do have legal obligations to provide safe and habitable accommodations for tenants. Bed bug infestations are an unacceptable condition. Tenants have an obligation to cooperate with owners and landlords. This includes preparing the apartment so the pest management professional can easily inspect rooms and treat if necessary.
You are legally liable if you misapply an insecticide, or apply it without a license, to the property of others—including common spaces in apartment buildings. In most cases, landlords, owners and building managers cannot legally apply insecticides unless they are licensed to do so.
Laws are changing and every situation is different. Local health departments and law offices have the best answers to legal questions. The only thing that’s certain is that bed bug problems won’t just disappear. Left untreated, they will grow and spread. The best way to cover all bases is to inform all who are potentially involved early on—managers, neighbors, friends…
And take steps to solve the problem:
- Call the local health department to find out what regulations apply.
- Call a professional pest control company.
- Document everything.
Landlords and tenants should make sure bed bug work is specified in their lease. For example, an agreement that requires tenants to do thorough preparation for bed bug treatment and to leave the living space while a pest management professional (PMP) works can go a long way if bed bugs arrive. The PMP should visit all rooms or units that share a wall (including directly above and below). Everyone needs to cooperate. Having a plan ready can save time, frustration, and money.
If you are a landlord, inspection should be done often with the permission of the tenant. Some tenants will not view bed bugs as a problem. It can get ugly if their infestation spreads to other units and unhappy tenants report that they have bed bugs. Inspect often to find infestations before they spread. Encourage tenants to report bed bugs.
Safety is always the #1 priority. Bed bugs aren’t known to spread disease. Don’t put yourself or PMPs in danger on account of bed bugs. Anyone who inspects apartments must be cautious of sharp objects or weapons under mattresses or in furniture. Always look with a flashlight before touching.
Document ALL prevention and control in a unit. This helps prove you took precautions and helps PMPs evaluate the situation.
Don’t panic. Although bed bugs can be annoying, you can get rid of them if you adopt a well-considered strategy.
Don’t put the legs of the bed frame in kerosene or coat them with petroleum jelly. Bed bugs have been known to climb on the ceiling and drop down onto the bed. Plus kerosene is a fire hazard.
Don’t depend on thyme oil. Thyme oil may discourage bed bugs, but it won’t kill them. Chances are it’ll spread, not fix, the problem.
Don’t leave the home unoccupied through a winter as a control measure. Bed bugs have adapted to the unpredictable habits of humans. If given time to go dormant—for example, in a vacation cabin that slowly gets cooler, then cold over fall and winter—bed bugs can survive, living without a meal for many months while waiting for humans to return. The quick penetration of killing cold (or heat) is the key to any temperature treatment.
Don’t turn up the heat. Exposing bed bugs to 120 ºF or more an hour will kill all life stages—and whole-structure or “container heat treatments” do work. But the caution is similar to using cold. High heat must be maintained at every point in the building: the outer walls, deep in the sofa, etc. for the full hour. Professionals who exterminate with heat enclose the structure, using tools to guarantee that it reaches the right temperature. If you go with a full-structure heat treatment, consider if the heat could damage furniture, appliances, and belongings.
Don’t bother sleeping with a light on. Bed bugs feed when hosts are inactive. Usually that’s when it’s dark—but they’ll feed under lights if they’re hungry.
Don’t sleep in a different room. Bed bugs will move to a neighboring room if they can’t find food. And they can live months between meals. Sleeping in a different room, staying at a hotel, or moving in with friends won’t solve the problem. And the chances of carrying the bugs to a new place are high. Keep sleeping in your bed. To be safe from bed bug bites, you can "Make Your Bed an Island".
Don’t throw a bed bug-infested mattress away and buy a new mattress. Buying a new mattress won’t solve the problem. Bed bugs hide in more than just mattresses. New mattresses might be transported in the same trucks that pick up used and possibly contaminated ones. If you need a new mattress, wait until the infestation is eliminated before buying a new one. (Remember: A bed bug-proof mattress and box-spring encasement kept in place for 1 ½ years will starve them to death. Inspect often for torn spots in the encasement (and evidence of bed bugs).
Don’t dispose of good furniture. Infested furniture can be cleaned and treated. Placing infested furniture (particularly mattresses) into common areas or on the street could spread bed bugs to other peoples’ homes. If you’re getting rid of infested furniture, deface it: make it less attractive to other people. Paint a picture of a bug on it and write “bed bugs” or “chinches.” Building managers should make sure disposed furniture is in a dumpster or taken to a landfill or waste facility right away.
Don’t wrap items in black plastic and leave them in the sun: it needs to get hotter than that to kill bed bugs, and heat needs to evenly penetrate the entire item.
Don’t move infested items out of the room without wrapping them in plastic. Bed bugs or eggs could be knocked off into an uninfested area.
Don’t apply insecticides unless you fully understand what you are applying and the risks involved. You are legally liable if you misapply an insecticide or apply it without a license to the property of others—including common spaces in apartment buildings. In most cases, landlords, owners and building managers cannot legally apply insecticides unless they are licensed to do so.
Pest management professionals (PMPs) have seen bed bugs feeding on pets, but it is uncommon. The bugs might get caught in a pet’s hair, but they won’t live on pets the way fleas do. Still, a pet could carry a bed bug from one room to another.
Since bed bugs rarely feed for more than 10 minutes and their feet don’t grip onto fur, twenty minutes of grooming your pet outside lets you rest at ease. All bedding and cage items should be inspected and washed and dried (60 minutes on hot). Inspect furniture, floors, and walls near the pets’ areas for signs of bed bugs.
It will take at least three weeks to be rid of bed bugs. Here’s why:
- Preparation usually takes about a week.
- Insecticides often don’t kill the eggs, which take about two weeks to hatch—the pest management professional (PMP) should reinspect and apply more insecticides if needed two full weeks after the first treatment.
- The fastest IPM fix relies on the team effort of a PMP and the occupant. The occupant must do the necessary preparation and do the organizing and cleaning work while the PMP handles the insecticides.
- The PMP will not treat many of the typical household items, like shoes, electronics, books, musical instruments and such. See "How to Get Bed Bugs Out of Your Belongings" for recommended bed bug treatments.
- Fumigation and full-structure heat treatments work after one treatment, but are very costly and not permanent solutions. Fumigation is different from fogging, which is the release of pesticide droplets into the air of a space. Fogging is nearly ineffective for bed bug control.
Pest management professionals (PMPs) should be knowledgeable about bed bugs, educating you so you understand why thorough, but time-consuming, preparation is so important. Some companies tell you to avoid preparation ahead of their arrival in order to see the infestation before bed bugs are chased out of their normal hiding spots. As long as the company has bed bug experience and a strategy that makes sense, you should be in good hands.
PMPs may ask you to launder all clothing, bedding, and draperies; buy resealable bags for all possessions in drawers, closets, etc.; clean rooms thoroughly; and vacate rooms on all treatment days. One thing that differs by pest control company is whether callers should do anything to the bed ahead of time. There’s no right way. Still, the company should be able to explain the why behind their methods.
The time and money it takes to battle bed bugs will be easier to grasp if you understand:
Clutter makes it harder for PMPs to find and treat all likely hiding spots of loner females that could restart an infestation.
Bed bugs aren’t found just in beds. Any space a credit card edge could slide in is a possible hiding spot. PMPs need to treat baseboards, picture frames, bed frames, dressers, drawers, and tables. Because preparation will disturb the bugs, you should choose a pest control company and learn their operating procedure before doing much to the room.
Remember: Insecticides don’t penetrate the eggs, which take up to two weeks to hatch. The follow-up treatment is usually scheduled two or three weeks after the first treatment to get those newly hatched nymphs. You want to get them before they become adults and lay more eggs. Prepare the same as for the first treatment. You can save time and money by unpacking only a few essentials until the follow-up is done.
Bed bug jobs take time and expertise. The service is justifiably costly. Prices vary by region and the type of contract. Call around to get an idea of prices in your region. Prices of $500 or more for the first visit and treatment and $250 for the follow-up aren’t unreasonable. It might even be cheap for an area. If you shop around and find a company that offers service at a much lower price, chances are they’re less thorough. Whole unit/house heat treatment or fumigation can cost several thousand dollars.
Technicians who inspect and treat should be able to answer questions about bed bug biology and behavior as well as explain their plans. Even if someone has already come to inspect and quote the job (some companies will quote over the phone, others inspect first and quote at that visit), technicians should always inspect before treating. At the very least, they should use a flashlight when inspecting. Proper inspection takes time and shouldn’t be rushed.
And what’s their plan for treatment? If it’s to treat least-infested areas first, working toward most-infested areas, the plan is good. PMPs should use a range of formulations and methods, both liquids and dusts. The PMP should target cracks, crevices, and behind electrical sockets. Not every company uses a vacuum or steamer—that might be your job. Vacuuming just before the PMP arrives will get dirt out of cracks so the insecticide can get in. The PMP must take care not to spread the problem. Anything that needs to be removed from the treatment area should be covered with plastic. Once an area has been treated, only treated items should be moved back in.
If people or pets are present, they should be in a different room. Don’t enter a room that has been treated with an insecticide for at least 4 hours—or whatever the insecticide label states, whichever is longer. The mattresses and bedding of children and anyone with an illness should not be treated with insecticides.
Count on at least one follow up treatment. Bed bugs should be gone after 2 – 3 visits. Unless the structure is fumigated (this is different from fogging!), one visit won’t get rid of bed bugs. Follow up treatments should still include a full inspection, followed by insecticide if bed bugs are found.
Because complete elimination is hard to achieve for any pest, some bed bug contracts don’t guarantee it. Bed bugs can be reintroduced from neighboring units, the activities of occupants or visitors. This doesn’t mean the company won’t go to great lengths to help you. And yes, it is possible to eliminate bed bugs from a home.
See "How to Get Bed Bugs Out of Your Belongings" for more detailed descriptions of pesticide-free control of bed bugs on various household items.
Cleaning: Thoroughly clean infested rooms as well as others in the residence. Scrub infested surfaces with a stiff brush to dislodge eggs and use a powerful vacuum to remove bed bugs from cracks and crevices. This won’t ensure that you’ve got all the eggs since they can be cemented deep in cracks. But it will help. Dismantle bed frames to expose additional hiding sites. Remove drawers from desks and dressers and turn furniture over, if possible, to inspect and clean all hiding spots.
Vacuuming: A vacuum is not a stand-alone solution. But it will suck up some bed bugs and, used frequently, help keep their numbers down. The narrowest attachment should be used along seams, cracks, and crevices. There’s no guarantee it’ll suck all bed bugs out of hiding. Immediately after, the bag or canister should be removed. Bed bugs in that bag will still be alive! Put the bag or canister contents into a plastic bag, make it airtight, then dispose of in an outdoor trash can. Wash the canister—be sure it’s unplugged! Inspect the vacuum to be sure no bugs remain inside or isolate the vacuum in a sealed bag.
Steam: A steamer that raises the temperature of any surface to 160-180F will kill eggs, nymphs, and adults on contact. But many household steamers are designed to get the wrinkles out of clothing or clean carpets. Those steam machines will not kill bed bugs, so be sure that the one you or your contractor uses is hot enough. Steam treatment offers no defense against reintroducing bed bugs. When using the right type of steamer, move extremely slowly (1 foot in 15 seconds) and methodically. Don’t use a small nozzle that blows bed bugs away from the treatment area—they will survive. Manufacturer’s instructions take priority over anything that anyone tells you. Afterward, let things dry completely. This prevents moisture or mold damage. Steam can carry electricity. Stay away from switch plates, electrical outlets, and plugged in appliances.
Heat: Heat of about 125F will kill bed bugs. Set the dryer on its hottest setting for 30 minutes to kill bed bugs and their eggs. If you plan to take belongings to a laundromat for a heat treatment, first sort laundry at home and put each load into a sealed bag. Put items directly into the dryer - not the washer. Bed bugs can survive a hot wash cycle. Don’t use the same bag to bring clothes back, toss them. Once heat treated, those items can be washed or brought home. Dry cleaning kills bed bugs, but tell them that the item might be contaminated. If the clothes won’t be damaged by heat and stains won’t set, put them in a dryer before going to the dry cleaner. Blankets, pillows, some shoes, children’s plush toys, curtains, rugs, seat cushions, and fabric bags—if the item can survive heat and tumbling and it won’t damage the dryer, it can go in a dryer. Check the lint filter for bed bugs afterwards. It’s another way to confirm their presence.
Freezing: A typical household freezer is cold, but not 100% effective at killing bed bugs. A freezer can be used to store and isolate items for future decontamination, but should not be relied upon. Heat is more effective.
Mattress Encasements: Mattresses and box springs can be permanently encased within bed bug-proof zippered mattress encasements. They must stay on for a full year and a half. Inspect them often to be sure they don’t have rips. If you find holes or tears, seal these completely with permanent tape or buy a new bag. Any bugs trapped within these sealed bags will eventually die.
Unless you have a pesticide applicator’s license, you shouldn’t apply insecticides to treat bed bugs. Why? If you try to get rid of the bed bugs on your own and it doesn’t work, then you call a pest control company and … Even more insecticides get used.
The bed bugs will be in new hiding spots, making it harder for pest management professionals (PMPs) to target them.
If, despite our warning, you try over-the-counter products, READ THE LABEL of any product you use. If it isn’t labeled for indoor use, don’t use it. If it isn’t labeled for use on a mattress, don’t use it on a mattress. Keep records of everything you do—the date, location, and insecticide or tool used.
You have the right to know what’s being applied in your home and at what concentration. The EPA registration number (EPA Reg. No.) is on the product label, which should be made available to you at the time of service. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) are available online for the active ingredient for all products. (Your pest control company might have them too). If you’re worried about children, the elderly, pregnancy, ill people, or pets, a doctor or veterinarian can use the EPA Reg. No. and MSDS to tell them what precautions to take. If the label doesn’t have an EPA Reg. No., don’t buy it! For more info on pesticides, call the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) at 800-858-7378, or go online at npic.orst.edu. Ask your pest control company about their standard operating procedures for sensitive cases. Generally, it is best to leave your things in your home or apartment when it’s treated. All food, plates, silverware, etc. should be protected from insecticides.
Insecticides used to treat bed bug infestations consist mainly of:
- Insecticidal dusts, such as finely ground silica powder, which abrade an insect’s waxy coat and cause it to dry out and die quickly. Some dusts are mixed with other dry insecticides. These dusts are applied in or behind permanent fixtures—walls, light switches, and the like. Piles of dust won’t work. a fine coating is all that's needed. If you can see the dust, it’s not being used right. Read the label!
- Contact liquid insecticides kill the bugs shortly after they come into direct contact with the product or its residue. These products tend to knock down bugs that wander over or otherwise contact the insecticide. BUT some repel bed bugs. Use the wrong product, and bed bugs could survive the pesticide and spread to other rooms.
- Insect Growth Regulators (IGRs) affect the development and reproduction of insects. Although they can work well, they don’t kill bugs quickly. PMPs often use these products to supplement other insecticides.
- Insect "bug bombs" or total release foggers are ineffective against bed bugs, despite the fact that they are labeled for bed bugs and readily available. Avoid using foggers, they do not get the insecticides into bed bug hiding spots.
Eggs keep unborn bed bugs safe from insecticides. Thirty minutes in a 125F dryer will kill bed bug eggs. Fumigation (not the same as foggers or “bombs”) also kills eggs. Steam is another option as long as the nozzle is moved slowly and the steamed item is given time to dry. Bed bug eggs hatch in about two weeks. A follow up inspection after two weeks is necessary to confirm that they’re gone.