Thinking you may have a pest problem is never fun, but most homeowners dread one infestation in particular: bed bugs. It?s understandable why: Bed bugs can be difficult?not to mention expensive?to get rid of.
The reason bed bugs are able to stick around so long, often going unnoticed until they?ve become a bigger problem, is that they?ve evolved to become the ?perfect parasite,? says Timothy Gibb, PhD, a clinical professor of entomology at Purdue University who?s studied bed bug infestations.
?They?ve had millions of years of evolution to fine-tune their feeding system and not wake the host,? says Edwin Rajotte, PhD, a professor of entomology at Penn State University. That means you often won?t realize you might have a problem until the bed bug population has become especially pervasive, or until you start waking up with bites you received the night before.
What are bed bugs, anyway?
A bed bug is what is called a blood-feeding ectoparasite, which means its only source of food is our blood, says Kenneth Haynes, PhD, a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky who specializes in bed bug biology. That need for our blood is why bed bugs are often found exactly where their name implies: our beds. ?They like to live near the host, meaning in our bedrooms, near our beds?as close as they can get to where we sleep as is possible,? says Haynes.
But another hard part of realizing you have a bed bug infestation is that bed bugs will remain hidden until nighttime, using a chemical signal to aggregate together in cracks, crevices, or other dark spaces, says Haynes. Then, during the middle of the night?typically between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.?our body odor, body heat, and the carbon dioxide we emit stimulates the bugs to get close to us for feeding. ?Once they find us, then they take their soda straw-like mouth part and stick it directly into a blood capillary and tap into their food,? says Haynes.
How to get rid of bed bugs the right way
It?s particularly difficult to get rid of bed bugs because they?re resistant to a lot of insecticides, including many of those you?ll find in bed bug treatments at the hardware store, says Gibb. Plus, in order to truly get rid of bed bugs, you need to banish all of them. ?Because all you need is one pregnant female, and you get a whole new population going there rather quickly,? says Rajotte.
That means the best way to get rid of bed bugs is to avoid bringing them home in the first place. But should you encounter a bed bug situation, follow these steps to nix them from your home for good.
1. Prevent bringing them home.
The key to avoiding a nasty bed bug situation is to identify them before you bring them into your home. But where do bed bugs come from? They are often brought into the home after travel, where the bed bugs might have crawled into your suitcase or backpack at a hotel, says Rajotte.
And don?t think just because you stayed at a five-star resort that means you?re exempt from getting bed bugs. ?The insidious thing is anybody can get them,? says Rajotte. ?It has nothing to do with how good a housekeeper you are or what your socioeconomic status is.?
So whenever you go into a hotel or vacation rental?regardless of the price or quality?expect that bed bugs can be there, says Rajotte. ?A good practice is to put the suitcase in the middle of the bathtub until you?ve had a chance to inspect the room,? he says.
Where do bed bugs hide?
Since they?re most likely to be on the mattress, start by looking there first. Pull back the sheets and check the corners of the mattress with special focus on the cord that goes around the mattress?a favorite spot for bed bugs, according to Rajotte?and around the head end of the mattress, as that?s where most people sleep.
You should also look behind the headboard, behind any pictures on the wall, and in any electrical sockets, which are all places bed bugs like to camp out. ?If there?s a decent infestation, you should be able to find them,? says Rajotte.
If you don?t spot any bed bugs, you?re probably safe to take your suitcase out of the bathtub and go about your business. But if you do spot bed bugs and suspect they might have gotten into your bag, take all of the clothes out of your suitcase and put them in a plastic bag, taping up the end of the bag, says Rajotte. ?The one saving feature about bed bugs is they are killed by heat,? he says. ?So if they are exposed to temperatures over 122 to 123 degrees Fahrenheit, they?ll die.?
That said, once you have the clothes taped up in a plastic bag, run them through the dryer at high heat for 30 minutes. ?That?s your main defense against bringing them home,? says Rajotte.
2. Identify the problem.
Let?s say you went on a trip, came home, and soon after, you start waking up with bites. ?If you?re getting strange bites at night, or you wake up and there?s a row of three or four bites on your upper arm or something like that, and you have screens on the windows so you?re not getting a lot of mosquitos in there, I would suspect bed bugs,? says Rajotte.
This is what will start off what experts call your ?monitoring? process in which you?ll need to identify: 1) if you have bed bugs, and 2) how big that bed bug population is.
? If you are waking up with three to four bites in a line or clustered together you may be dealing with bed bugs, especially if they are red, swollen, and itchy.
What do bed bugs look like?
To identify bed bugs, conduct a search in your own home the same as you would in a hotel room. Look for an insect that?s about the size of an apple seed, that?s very flat from top to bottom?almost as thin as a piece of paper?and that has a brownish color, says Rajotte. These would be adult bed bugs. However, you should also keep your eye out for pinhead-sized bugs that are brownish in color, as they could be baby bed bugs, and look for black spots on your sheets, mattress, and mattress cover, which could be bed bug feces.
If you spot bed bugs, then you?re next going to want to determine how big your population is. If it?s smaller and newly established?think 10 to 15 bed bugs?you?ll likely be able to control the situation on your own, says Gibb. However, if it?s a bigger population, your best bet is going to be calling in a pest control management team to get rid of the problem. ?If it?s really entrenched and there?s thousands, I just don?t see a person being able to control it themselves,? says Gibb.
3. Control the bed bug population and prepare for treatment.
Once you know you have a bed bug infestation on your hands, you?re going to want to take steps to control the population and prepare your bedroom for treatment.
Similarly to as you would at a hotel, start by putting your sheets, bedding, mattress cover, and any other fabrics that might have been exposed to the bed bugs?like stuffed animals or clothing?into the washer and dryer at high heat, says Rajotte. ?Then, don?t reintroduce those until the bed bugs are gone,? he adds.
From there, you can use other tactics like vacuuming around the areas bed bugs might be?think around the mattress and in cracks and crevices?or steaming those same areas, says Gibb. You can also get a zippered bed bug mattress encasement to prevent bed bugs from further spreading.
4. Kill the bed bugs.
Now that you?ve prepared your room for bed bug treatment and know the population you?re dealing with, it?s time to get ready to kill the bugs. To control the bed bug situation, you?re going to want to use what experts call integrated pest management (IPM), which essentially means using more than one tactic to get rid of the parasites, says Rajotte. ?Our recommendation is never to just use one approach, because chances of success there are pretty slim,? adds Gibb.
Once you?ve taken the steps above, then you?re going to want to begin other methods, including heat and pesticide treatment.
When it comes to heat treatments, this is something you?re especially going to want to get done by professionals. That?s because in order to kill the bed bugs via this method, you need to get the room up to at least 119 degrees, says Gibb, including in every crack and cranny where the bed bugs might be residing. Although this can be difficult on your own, pest controllers have the right equipment and training to thoroughly heat the room and kill off the population.
Do bed bug sprays work?
If you take the pesticide route, you can choose to either hire a professional who will be able to use restricted pesticides unavailable for consumer use?which is what experts recommend?or you can try to tackle the treatment yourself.
If you do decide to try the pesticide treatment yourself, recognize that bed bugs are resistant to lots of different chemicals, including pyrethroids, which are often found in stores and tout false bed bug control labels. Instead, use diatomaceous earth?which is a white powder that you?ll apply directly to wherever the bed bugs are and can be found online?or a bio-oil spray designed specifically to kill bed bugs, like Eco-Raider, says Gibb, which you?ll apply the same way. Both are long-lasting and don?t break down over time like other pesticides, which means you should only have to apply them once.
5. Monitor the treatment to make sure the bed bugs are gone.
After every treatment you perform, you?re going to want to monitor your attempts until all of the bed bugs are gone, says Rajotte. If you hired a pest control company, expect them to check in two weeks after each treatment, he says, and if you did the treatment yourself, perform a similar check at home.
One thing you should expect is that it might take a couple rounds of treatment to consider yourself completely rid of bed bugs. ?I think we?ve kind of spoiled our society in terms of, ?I have a pest problem, come in and spray for it, and I expect it to be gone as soon as you leave,?? says Gibb. ?That?s just not the case with bed bugs, unfortunately.?
But the good news is, as long as you follow these measures?and continue to perform tactics like washing and drying materials that might have been affected by bed bugs until the parasites are gone?bed bugs won?t stick around forever. ?Anybody can get bed bugs,? says Gibb. ?But it takes a concentrated effort to get rid of them.?
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