If the thought of a bed bug makes you say "blech," it's no wonder. This small, brownish pest the size of an apple seed is, quite literally, a blood-sucking biter with a high ick factor. It’s no wonder that getting rid of bed bugs becomes priority number one for anyone who discovers they have them. That’s a good thing, too, because, given the chance, a bed bug will go right to work, making a meal of your blood.
Once fed, that same bed bug will creep back into an out-of-the-way place of your home, most often where you sleep. That’s because bed bugs like to nestle their flat, little bodies near their food source—in other words, into the tiny crevices found in and around your mattress, box springs, bed frame, and headboard.
How Bed Bugs Get Into Your Home
Until recently, a bed bug (Cimex lectularius) was a blast from the past; a pest that was common back in the generations before World War II. Changes in our daily lives, including international travel and less overall vigilance, have led to a resurgence. Now, bed bug infestations are more common, yet no less troublesome.
One thing that hasn’t changed about bed bugs is their stealthy nature. Bed bugs find their way into homes, apartments, and hotels by quietly crawling into and onto backpacks, suitcases, boxes, thrifted clothes, and used furniture, then hitching a ride to their next destination.
Once they reach their destination, bed bugs bite and feed on sleeping people. Their bite feels innocuous, so most people don’t know they’ve been bitten, unless they get a red, itchy welt on a shoulder or arm. Even then, some people chalk such a skin reaction up to a nighttime visit from a mosquito or spider.
Their nocturnal nature means that bed bugs can go undetected for long periods of time. Left unchecked, they can lay eggs and reproduce at a rapid rate of three or more generations every 12 months. While the average adult bed bug lives just a couple of months, some can survive up to a year, even without a blood meal.
How to Get Rid of Bed Bugs
Of course, you can’t get rid of bed bugs if you don’t know you have them. Even if you check for them in and around where you sleep, how certain can you be that bed bugs aren’t hiding from you? If you find them, do you know how and what kills bed bugs?
Knowledge is power, so here’s your power: a list of dos and don’ts for preventing, controlling, and getting rid of a bed bug infestation.
DO Inspect for Bed Bugs Where You Sleep
Bed bugs are small, which makes them really good at hiding. They tend to come out only when they’re hungry and mostly at night. Plus, their flat bodies fit into tight, dark places, like mattress seams, where you might not see them or think to look. Make a point of checking regularly for bed bugs in and around your bed. Look for them in mattress seams and puckers, inside and underneath nightstands, and in and around items kept near your bed, such as clocks and phones.
If you don’t see the bugs themselves, look for evidence of them. Signs of an infestation, usually a larger one, include tiny, rust-colored smears on sheets and mattresses, shed skins from molting youngsters, and a musty, “buggy” odor. Bed bugs will relocate if they’re disturbed, so if you find bed bugs, stop looking and start treating right away.
DON’T Rely Only on Physical Inspection
If you’ve looked and don’t see bed bugs or signs of them, don’t breathe a sigh of relief quite yet, as you may still might have bed bugs in your home. To find out for sure, try to lure them out of hiding with a bed bug detector. Ortho® Home Defense Max® Bed Bug Trap is an easy-to-use station that detects and traps bed bugs. This trap has an attractant that you activate before placing it under your bed or between the mattress and box spring, in a place that’s closest to where your head is when you sleep. You can also place it in bed bugs’ other hiding hangouts, such as under a recliner chair leg or sofa cushion.
If bed bugs are present, a few will end up in this trap. When that happens, immediately begin following the treatment recommendations below. Then, after treatment, use the detector again just to confirm that bed bugs are gone. If there are no bed bugs in the trap after 2 weeks, there are probably no bed bugs in your home.
DO Remove Bed Bugs by Cleaning
Cleaning alone isn’t enough to kill bed bugs. It is, however, remarkably effective at removing some of them, along with shed skin and eggs. Clean by gently brushing furniture and bed frames, then using hot, soapy water to scrub hard surfaces (except wood). Vacuum bedding, furniture, drawers, draperies, suitcases, and any other items that could be hiding bed bugs. Dump the contents of your vacuum into a sealable plastic bag, close it tightly, and dispose of it in an outside trash receptable. If you’d rather not have bed bugs in your vacuum bag or canister, secure a thin sock or stocking over the vacuum tube, then attach a crevice tool. Vacuum, then carefully remove the stocking and seal it in a plastic bag before putting it in the trash.
DON’T Forget to Bug-Check Items
Bed bugs don’t fly or jump. They do, however, hitchhike in on your stuff, including clothing, luggage, used furniture, and electronics, such as TVs and smoke detectors. So, always launder and clean any item you purchase from a yard sale or thrift store, and avoid trash-picking items, including furniture.
DO Thwart Bed Bugs
Protect your mattress and box spring from a bed bug infestation by enveloping them in “encasements,” specially designed shields that completely cover your bed. Sold online and in retail stores, encasements are different than mattress pads and protectors, so choose carefully.
Bed bugs don’t do well climbing on smooth plastic items. There are two ways to use this knowledge to your advantage: First, store household items, including seasonal clothing and bedding, in plastic totes or bags rather than cardboard. Second, consider making or buying plastic bed bug “interceptors,” which are small dishes with a deep well or moat. Place interceptors under bed posts or chair legs so when bed bugs crawl, they fall into the moat.
Another way to hinder bed bugs is to embrace minimalism. Fewer loose items mean fewer places for bed bugs to hide. In addition, keep things like laundry, bedspreads, and blankets off the floor and away from walls.
DON’T Bother Trying to Trick Them
Bed bugs are sneaky. Changing where you sleep, putting mothballs or dryer sheets under the bed, or using an ultrasonic pest repellent are just a few of the many home remedies that are not effective against bed bugs. Leaving bedroom lights on while you sleep won’t work, either. Yes, bed bugs like the night, but they’re not clock-watchers, so if they’re hungry, light or time of day won’t stop them. Also, there’s no evidence that spraying yourself with mosquito repellent or dousing yourself with essential oils is effective against bed bugs. Unless a product or spray specifically lists bed bugs on its label, it’s not worth your time or money.
DO Use Hot and Cold to Kill Bed Bugs
Extreme heat and cold are known bed bug killers. Launder clothes, bedding, and other washables in hot (122ºF+) water for at least 20 minutes. Tumble-dry items that cannot be washed, such as draperies, backpacks, and stuffed toys, on medium-high heat for 30 minutes. For items too large or delicate to wash, dry, or otherwise expose to high heat, try freezing them instead. Place bed bug-infested objects like books and shoes in a sealed plastic bag, then place in a 0ºF freezer for at least 3 days. If you have a handheld steamer that reaches 212ºF and can be used on an item, by all means, go ahead. Steam at that temperature kills bed bugs on contact. Just be careful, because steam can damage delicate fabrics and wood furniture. Keep in mind, too, that high heat and freezing temperatures will kill some bed bugs, but probably won’t get rid of all of them. If an item can’t be cleaned or treated and is infested, you may have to throw it out.
DON’T Wait to Kill Bed Bugs
Because bed bug infestations escalate quickly, you not only have to act fast, but you need to keep taking all these steps until the bed bugs are gone. Even if you’ve removed some bed bugs, you likely have more hiding in places you can’t see or reach. To kill bed bugs where they hide, spray a fast-acting, long-lasting control product like Ortho® Home Defense Max® Bed Bug Killer, which kills bed bugs and their eggs (including tough, pyrethroid-resistant bed bugs) for up to 16 weeks. Apply to bed frames, headboards, floors, and mattress tufts, folds, edges, sides, and seams, making sure to read and follow all label directions.
DO Treat Cracks & Crevices
Bed bugs can live in the unexpected, out-of-the-way places of your home, including behind wall plates, along baseboards, and around window frames. To kill hard-to-reach bed bugs on contact, apply Ortho® Home Defense Max® Bed Bug & Flea Killer Powder. Dust product in empty dressers and clothes closets, around wallpaper edges, and where wall-to-wall carpeting meets wall edges and baseboards. It kills bed bugs by contact and controls them for up to 8 months.
DON’T Stop Being Vigilant
It’s always a good idea to check for bed bugs on a regular basis – especially after traveling, staying in a hotel, or thrifting. Make regular visual inspections, use a bed bug detector, and clean or launder gently used items before bringing them into your home. (Check out Avoiding Bed Bugs While Traveling for tips on staying bed bug-free when you’re on the road.)
How Long Will It Take to Get Rid of Bed Bugs?
Bed bugs are tough little buggers, so getting rid of them won’t happen overnight. While having to deal with bed bugs may make you want to cringe, just remember there’s no shame or blame in it. With a little know-how and some diligent effort, you can regain control of your home faster than you think.