“Don’t let the bed bugs bite!”
“Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.” Many of us have heard this little ditty. It’s usually offered and received with a bit of amusement. However, for anyone experiencing a bed bug infestation, it’s anything but funny.
Once, living with bed bugs was the norm, rather than the exception. Nearly 1 in 5 homes had them. There were areas of London where the infestation rate was almost 100 percent. So high in fact, that many of our parents and grandparents wouldn’t have thought to talk about having bed bugs. During WWII, infestation of military barracks was a significant problem, yet one never hears that discussed by veterans, or on historical documentaries about the war.
With the invention of the vacuum cleaner and washing machine, and the widespread use of DDT, many pests, including bed bugs, were virtually eliminated. The developed world stopped thinking about the little vampires. People snuggled into their beds without a care. But in recent years, bed bugs have come back with a vengeance.
Why new infestations now?
Scientists are still trying to sort this one out. They believe that increased travel, including internationally, when combined with the banning of DDT and many other pesticides, has made for perfect conditions for the bugs. Worse yet, bed bugs have developed a resistance to many pesticides that would once have caused their little buggy deaths. Simply put, they’re spreading and they’re much harder to kill.
How do I avoid getting bedbugs?
I wish I could say that was easy. It’s not. Virtually any place you go, bed bugs have been found there. Bed bugs have been found infesting laundromats, restaurants, department stores, theaters, hotels, hospitals, and airplanes. In infested homes, they’ve set up housekeeping inside of televisions and computer keyboards. Before you say, “What about….?”, my answer is, yes, they’ve been found there too.
For example, a woman reported becoming infested when she bought a new bedroom set and had it delivered. It came from the furniture store’s warehouse with the bed bugs built in. San Diego discovered a number of their station houses to be infested, and are reasonably sure they not only picked up the original bugs while on a call, but that they may have unknowingly dropped them off while on other calls. Scary, right?
At the moment, there is little we can do except be vigilant. If you stay in a hotel (or for that matter with friends or family), check the bed. Lift up the mattress and with a flashlight, look for the tell-tale signs that bed bugs leave. Look behind headboards, and the underside of dresser drawers. Never set your suitcase on the bed, or leave it on the floor. If there’s a suitcase stand, use it. Otherwise, find a smooth surface, like a table top. When you get home, put any laundry directly in the washer, and treat the suitcase as though it is infested.
In theaters, in hotels and on airplanes, check the seats. Yes, I’m advocating taking a small flashlight everywhere. Paranoid? Maybe. Now that I’ve had bed bugs, I’d prefer not to have them again.
How do I know if I have them?
Chances are the first sign will be waking up in the morning with bite marks. At first, people often mistake them for mosquito bites. Until they realize the only way to get so many mosquito bites would be to stand naked in the middle of a swamp. The other mistake is to assume the bite was made by a spider.
Here’s how to tell the difference:
- Bed bugs bites tend to come in clusters of three, or, “breakfast, lunch and dinner.” You may have only a single bite or you may have several. There are reported cases of people receiving 100 bites in a single night.
- They look different than mosquito or spider bites. Bed bug bites tend to be flat, and have a distinctive visible puncture in the center.
- Other bites tend to itch immediately. Often, bed bug bites won’t itch, at least not until the next day. And, for whatever reason, new bites will make old bites itch.
- If you don’t have a full-blown infestation yet, you may only see bites every few days. The average bed bug only eats every 7 to 10 days.
If you wake up with bites, and you think they may be from bed bugs, examine your sheets. There are often little spots or streaks of blood, sort of like crumbs left from a meal. Next, grab your trusty flashlight and have a look under your mattress at the box springs. (Better yet, make a habit of doing this every time you change the sheets on your bed.) You’re looking for bed bug feces. Since it’s mostly digested blood, the feces are liquid, and leave black stains on the fabric of mattresses, box springs or wherever the bugs have set up housekeeping. You may or may not see the actual bugs. I have yet to see one.
I have bed bugs. Now what!?
First thing, take a deep breath. The world isn’t ending. They’re creepy and it’s disgusting, knowing that when you go to bed tonight, a small buggy creature will climb on you, find a spot he or she likes, will then inject you with an insect anethestic (that’s why you don’t feel it), and will suck on you until, looking like a tiny balloon, it waddles back to its comfy lair in your furniture to sleep it off.
Sorry, I got a bit carried away with the description.
Here’s what we know about bed bugs. They are attracted by carbon dioxide, so every time you exhale, it’s like ringing the dinner bell.
They aren’t thrilled with cold, but their nemesis is heat. About the size of an apple seed, and pre-dining, almost as flat as a sheet of paper, they don’t have a lot of body fluid. Which means they dehydrate quickly.
The fastest, sure-fire way to get rid of bed bugs is to hire an exterminator with the ability to raise the temperature of your entire home up to 140°F. It’s expensive, but it’s the “gold standard” solution.
If you can’t find an exterminator who can bake the bugs, or if you flat can’t afford an exterminator, here’s the do-it-yourself version of bed bug termination.
You’ll need to purchase (a) a steamer, (b) cans of Bedlam bug spray, (c) 1-2 pounds of restaurant-quality diatomaceous earth, (d) a small paint brush, (e) a couple of restaurant-style plastic squeeze bottles, (f) foam inserts for your light switch and power outlets, and (g) covers for your mattress, box springs and pillows.
I know, that sounds like a lot of equipment. It’s really not. The most expensive items are the steamer and the covers for the mattress and box springs. We purchased a Bissell Steam Shot, which was all of $40.00. The mattress and box springs covers were about $35.00 each. Bedlam Bug Spray is about $16.00 per can. Restaurant quality diatomaceous earth is around $1.00 per lb., and can be found online or at many gardening shops. The bottles were 99 cents.
Okay, that’s the good news. The bad news: You’re probably going to have to treat EVERYTHING in your house. The other good news? By the time you get done, you’ll have a very clean home! So, let’s get started.
Wash your sheets, blankets, comforters – whatever’s on your bed – in hot water. Dry those items in a hot dryer for at least 30 minutes. Pillows can just be dried. Items that can’t be washed and dried, should be dry-cleaned. Warn the dry cleaner. Towels, clothes, stuffed animals, etc., should be laundered the same way. At least throw them in a hot dryer for 30 minutes. If it’s summer and the temperature inside your car climbs to over 120°F, you can bag your clothes and other clean items and tuck them in your parked car in the sunshine. Make sure the bags are well sealed to ensure any existing bugs don’t escape into your car.
You’ll have to treat your books. If it’s summer, bagged them and put them in your car. If it’s winter, bag them and put them outside in the cold. Or, turn your oven to Low and bake them. Carefully. I know, but they’ve taken up residence in the spines of books. Check CD’s and other items and dust around them.
Purchase covers for your mattress, box springs and bed pillows. They’re a little pricey, but worth it. Make sure they’re specifically made to deal with bed bugs. Put these aside; we’ll come back to them.
Move all your furniture and vacuum, then shampoo your carpets. You need to rent a shampooer that can heat the water it puts into the carpet. The hotter the better. When emptying the vacuum cleaner canister, or replacing the bag, try to do so outside and away from your home.
Once that’s done, you’re going to take the steamer and force hot steam along the base boards where the carpet touches the wall. Then you’re going to steam every square inch of your fabric covered furniture, including your mattress and box springs. Turn the items upside down and do the undersides. If the furniture has a dust cover, remove it. You need access to all the possible hiding places on the underside of the furniture. If you can see steam coming out the other side, indicating the hot vapor is going all the way through, that’s perfect. Other furniture should also be steamed. If there’s a crack, no matter how tiny, force steam into it. Yes, this is very labor intensive and time consuming. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Take Bedlam spray and go over the places you steamed. You’re aiming for the carpet edges and any crevices or folds that can be found in the furniture. Bedlam doesn’t stain most fabrics, but it leaves a residue that is hazardous to bed bugs.
Once the Bedlam has dried, fill the plastic squeeze bottle with diatomaceous earth (DE). Go back over the carpet edges, laying down puffs of DE between the carpet and the base boards. You don’t need a lot, just make sure every inch is dusted. You want it thick and deep enough to make the beasts cough (okay, just kidding) and to help dry them out. Do the same thing with your furniture. Use the small paint brush to spread the DE and ensure that it’s getting well into all those tiny nooks and crannies. That includes pulling cushions off the chairs and couches and dusting under them. Do the backside of pictures, mirrors and whatever else you may have hanging on the walls. If it looks like a crack or a fold, dust it.
This is where you get to use the foam outlet inserts. Unscrew light switch and outlet covers, blow some puffs of DE inside the space, and then place the foam inserts in and screw everything back into place. I realise this sounds crazy, but bed bugs can and will squeeze themselves in behind those plates.
Put your mattress, box springs and pillows inside the covers and zip them up tight. Re-make your bed with your freshly laundered linens and relax for a while. Oh, make sure that bed skirts and bed spreads don’t touch the floor.
For the next couple of months, you’re going to have to vacuum every day. An infestation is not considered to be “over” until you’ve got eight weeks with no bites or other signs.
Easy, right? I know, it sounds like a lot, especially if you have a large home. Team effort makes it easier to accomplish. My roommate and I had our own assembly line. He steamed, I sprayed, we both dusted.
Well, that’s it. Good luck and sleep tight!