Bed bug epidemics resurfaced with a vengeance in the United States in recent years. Previously, the problem had been thought to have been eradicated in the 1940s, but in 2010 it became evident the problem had spread significantly as homes, apartment buildings, hotels and other commercial entities had begun to become plagued by bed bugs. Fast forward to today and it’s still a problem in many places including hotels, businesses, dorms and homes.

Bed bugs are a flat, reddish-brown insect, oval in size and about 3/16-inch long. Orkin, a large pest control company with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, describes the bug as about the size of an apple seed. [1]

Bed bug on carpet
Credit: By Mohamedhp (I took photo) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

These annoying pests are very small and hard to detect, unless you know what to look for.

Signs Bed Bugs Are Lurking About

These bugs feed on human and other warm-blooded hosts and can go for long periods of time without feeding. Signs of a bed bug problem include dark or black streaks of digested blood on bed sheets, an unpleasant "sweet" odor, and small dark specks present. These are remnants that drop off bed bugs and are known as "casing". Other signs are awaking with bites and skin irritation as bed bugs are night feeders and typically bite their hosts while they sleep.

This type of pest hides in seams, behind mattress tags or in the crevices of mattresses. These bugs may also live behind baseboards, in electrical outlets and lurk in picture frames. Sheets and comforters are also another place bed bugs may reside. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  (EPA) lists images that show signs of bed bug presence. [2]

If you see any signs, it is important to act fast, before the problem becomes a serious infestation. Anyone can be affected as these bugs do not distinguish between clean and dirty and can be picked up anywhere and brought home.

If you find a problem and want to treat it yourself, be prepared, usually taking the DIY route can take several weeks, or months. It requires a lot of patience and repeated processes.

Eliminate Clutter

While even the cleanest of homes can become infested, bed bugs are harder to detect in a cluttered home. Removing the clutter can be a proactive way to make sure signs of any bugs are found quickly if they happen to hitch a ride into your home. If you are already seeing a problem, getting rid of the clutter will give the bugs fewer places to hide.

Use Encasements

The EPA suggests using special bed bug covers, called encasements, on mattresses and box springs; the agency recommends leaving them on for a year. "Be sure to buy a product that has been tested for bed bugs and is strong enough to last for the full year without tearing," the EPA says. [3]

Consistent Washing and Hot Drying

Experts recommend washing all your sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, stuffed animals, clothing and any other materials that have been on the bed or touch the floor. Be sure and use heat-drying to kill off the bugs and eggs. Don't forget to also routinely clean your hamper in case any eggs or bugs have fallen off items. Some experts recommend using dissolvable laundry bags to move the insects from the infested room to wash and dry. The reasoning being that accidental spreading can occur and bring the critters from infested rooms to those still free of bugs. Others will say using tightly sealed plastic bags will do the trick. Once the bags are emptied, seal them in a clean plastic bag. Be sure to wash any clothing and bedding in hot water and a hot drying cycle. Experts generally recommend items be washed in 140°Fahrenheit (60° Celsius) water. This ensures the eggs are also killed; the critters will die at 113°Fahrenheit (45° Celsius ) and dried at the hottest setting on the dryer.

Suffocate the Bugs

Experts recommend for smaller items that cannot be washed/cleaned, to seal them in plastic containers either freeze or heat-kill bed bugs. For freezing, it takes several days to weeks to kill the bugs and up to 60 days to kill off eggs. For heating, items must be left in areas that are 104°F (40° C) for an extended period of time to kill the bugs (i.e. a hot car or very sunny spot in the summer). This in itself probably won't rid the buggers, but can help with management and control. Some experts even suggest "baking" the critters won't really do much to get rid of the problem.

Vacuum and Shampoo

Routine vacuuming can reduce the number of bed bugs and pick up any eggs, however, be sure to dispose of your vacuum cleaner bag between each use. If you use a bagless vacuum, be sure and wash the canister after each use; also soak the HEPA filter in very hot and soapy water for 10 minutes or more. It might be easier to pick up a cheaper vacuum that has disposable bags. Vacuuming likely won't solve your problem, but can diminish it. Shampooing your carpet and keeping it clean may also help.

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What NOT to Do

There are several "do not" approaches when treating bed bugs. [4] According to the University of Minnesota:

  • Avoid use of agricultural or garden pesticides. People living in your home can get sick.
  • Do not apply pesticides to anyone's body.
  • Alcohol, kerosene and gasoline are dangerous and highly flammable, do not use these products to eliminate the bugs.
  • Treat furniture, don't throw it out. It's costly and can spread the bugs to other places.
  • Try to confine affected rooms, don't move items from one room to another in order to clean it out. This has potential to further spread the bugs to other places in your home.

Call a Professional

If the bug situation is very bad, it is probably easier to call in experts to rid your home of bed bugs. The EPA commends hiring a professional that is experienced and uses the IPM approach (integrated pest management). [5] This approach entails focus on the bug's life cycle and using techniques that are least hazardous to people, property and the environment. 

Picking up bed bugs while traveling is often the culprit, to avoid potentially bringing bed bugs home, it is important to be proactive

Bed bugs are more of an annoyance than anything, as they do not transmit diseases.  However, they can disrupt your sleep and give you skin irritation. If you do have the misfortune to find them in your home or business, fortunately, there are ways to get rid of them.

Bed bug
Credit: By Content Providers(s): CDC/ Harvard University, Dr. Gary Alpert; Dr. Harold Harlan; Richard Pollack. Photo Credit: Piotr Naskrecki (http://phil.cdc.gov/phil/details.asp?pid=9822) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons