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Bed bugs are small insects that feed on human blood. Since they’re less than a quarter of an inch long, they’re almost impossible to spot. But they can be found anywhere, from houses to nursing homes and hotels.
The tell-tale sign of bed bugs is small bites clustered in a group or line on your skin. Although bed bug bites are itchy, they’re usually harmless.
“In the vast majority of cases, bed bugs are a nuisance rather than genuinely dangerous to health,” says Sreedhar Krishna, a dermatologist at TalkHealth London. In fact, the CDC says that bed bugs don’t spread disease.
Still, bed bug bites can be itchy and annoying, and it’s really important to get rid of bed bugs if you have an infestation. Here’s how to spot signs of bed bugs and get rid of them quickly and effectively.
Why bed bugs are hard to kill
- Some are pesticide-resistant: Though pesticides are the most effective way to kill bed bugs, some bed bugs have developed thicker skin or special enzymes to fight back against exterminators’ go-to tools.
- They can multiply undetected: Bed bugs are able to lay hundreds of tiny eggs, so they can quickly grow in population without anyone noticing, as their small, flat bodies are nearly impossible to spot.
- They like to hide: Bed bugs often hide in cracks and crevices around your bed. “Sometimes it can be very hard to tell if you have bed bugs as they remain in hiding places through the daytime and only come out at night to feed when we are in a deep sleep,” says Rick Young, owner of UK-based Young’s Pest Control.
How to check for bed bugs
To identify bed bugs, the most common signs include:
- Bed bug bites that appear in a cluster or line on your skin. Bites will appear red on light skin, or could look dark on darker skin. They will be smaller than mosquito bites.
- Red or rusty colored stains on your mattress or sheets. This can occur when you inadvertently squish bed bugs.
- Dark brown or black stains on your mattress or sheets that almost look like they were drawn by a marker. These are bed bug feces.
- Molted skins of bed bugs. These will look like coffee grounds, and will appear in the seams and crevices of your mattress.
- Eggs or egg shells, which appear as tiny dots, about 1 mm long.
- A sweet, musty odor, brought about by the bug activity.
How to get rid of bed bugs
Treating bed bugs can be complex and time-consuming, especially since infestations are usually severe by the time people notice them. A methodical approach can help you get rid of bed bugs and sleep easier.
Note: While you can try to get rid of bed bugs on your own, professional extermination is likely to be more effective. In some cases, a bed bug infestation can become worse during the time you take to try to get rid of bed bugs yourself.
Here’s how to get rid of bed bugs, whether you want to call an exterminator or do it yourself.
Control the infestation
Once you realize that you have bed bugs, the first step is to try to control the infestation so that it doesn’t spread. For many people, the first inclination is to sleep somewhere without bed bugs, like in a guest bedroom or on the couch.
Unfortunately, doing that can bring bed bugs into other areas of your house, so experts recommend thoroughly cleaning your bedroom, and continuing to sleep in there.
When you notice a bed bug infestation, immediately take these steps to help curb the spread of bed bugs:
- Strip your bed and put all the bedding in two trash bags. Wash all the bedding in hot water, and dry the bedding on high for at least 30 minutes — the heat will kill the bugs and any eggs. Throw the bags in the trash and take the trash out of your home.
- Vacuum your bed. Pay close attention to the crevices and creases where bed bugs hide. When you’re finished, empty the vacuum outside. Continue to empty the vacuum after each use until you’re sure the bed bugs are gone.
- Get a bed-bug-proof mattress protector. This encasement will zipper around your whole mattress, preventing the bugs from biting you or escaping. It’s important to buy a protector specifically designed for bed bugs, since this has a zipper designed to ensure that bed bugs can’t get out.
- Buy bed bug interceptors. These are small cups that go under the legs or the frame or the bed, trapping bed bugs trying to get onto (or off of) the bed. If your bed is currently on the floor, purchase a frame.
After you’ve taken these steps, you can make your bed and know that you have a safe space to sleep while you handle the infestation.
Treat the infestation
If you don’t want to hire an exterminator, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends trying certain do-it-yourself remedies to kill bed bugs:
- Heat treatment. Bed bugs die when they’re exposed to heat above 130°F. You can put bedding in the dryer on high heat, or use a steam cleaner with a gentle air force to heat your bed.
- Cold treatment. You can put your bedding in a sealed bag, and stick it in a freezer set to 0°F for four days to kill bed bugs.
- Pesticides. Desiccants, which dry out the bed bugs, are very effective but can take months to work. Some foggers (also known as bug bombs) can be used to fight bed bugs, but they’re less effective because they don’t penetrate the small cracks where bed bugs hide.
Note: If you decide to use pesticides without professional help, it’s important to follow the directions closely to avoid any health side effects.
If you’re taking a DIY approach to getting rid of bed bugs, follow these steps:
- Identify the source. Try to figure out which room is the source of your infestation, and whether the bed bugs may have spread to other rooms.
- Be methodical. Treat all furniture in the room with your pesticide of choice. Start by moving all the furniture to one side of the room. As you treat each piece, move it across the room, away from the pieces that may still have bed bugs lurking. Pay close attention to places like screw heads or cracks in the furniture, where bed bugs can hide.
- Monitor your progress. Keep track of where and when you see signs of bugs. That can help you determine whether your efforts are working, or whether you might need professional help.
Although it’s tempting, don’t throw your bed or bedding away. Replacing it would be expensive, and you’re probably better off spending that money on a professional exterminator.
When to call an exterminator
An exterminator will follow the same basic approach to eliminate bed bugs, but with professional resources. They’ll disassemble and clean your furniture and make recommendations for rearranging your space to prevent further infestations.
Exterminators use the same tools — heat or pesticides — but they have access to higher-quality equipment that can work more quickly and effectively.
“There are a number of home remedies which one can try, but these are unlikely to eradicate the problem,” Krishna says. “This is because bed bugs can hide in very tricky to reach areas and so professional help is often required.”
What’s the cost? Bed bug treatment can be expensive. You’ll likely pay between $500 and $1,500 for extermination, although more severe infestations can cost thousands to treat. If you rent, your landlord may be responsible for some of the cost of treatment, so certainly talk to them.
Most bed bugs will be killed after initial treatment by a professional exterminator. Typically, treatment takes 30 minutes to two hours, but the exterminator will tell you when it’s safe to reenter your space, based on the pesticide that they used.
After the extermination is complete, you should continue to monitor for signs of bedbugs for at least two weeks. If you see any, the exterminator may need to come back and repeat their treatment. It’s not uncommon for exterminators to come back multiple times to get rid of the bed bugs.
The EPA has additional guidance on selecting a pest control company. Be sure that the person you hire uses the principles of integrated pest management (IPM). That includes helping you know what to look for in terms of signs of continuing infections.
Bed bugs are creepy, but they’re mostly harmless and there are effective ways to get rid of them. Remembering that can help you stay calm if you notice the signs of a bed bug infestation in your home.
“You never need to panic if you have bed bugs,” Young says. “There are qualified people and correct methods of safely exterminating your problem.”
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