How to Deal With Bed Bugs

Bed bug prevention, extermination, and common myths surrounding these pests

Itching feet in bed

There are many things I hate.

I hate that HBO’s True Detective season two was ruined by a poor effort from Justin Lin and Vince Vaughn. I hate that it’s so hard to find Thai delivery. I hate that bad things happen to good people and vice versa.

But more so than anything else I can think of, I hate bugs.

This is why the thought of waking up from a cozy slumber to find a pack of bed bugs munching on my face-meat is perhaps the most horrifying thing I can imagine. They’re tiny, they’re sneaky, and they’re quite literally out for your blood.

They’re tiny, they’re sneaky, and they’re quite literally out for your blood.

Bed bug close up

While Cimex lectularius (the scientific term for “bed bugs”) doesn’t carry any diseases transmittable to humans, these lentil-sized parasites can have a host of other effects on the human body and brain. Swelling and rashes as a result of their nighttime feeding on victims are common, and serious infestations can result in the development of insomnia, anxiety, and stress disorders due to the fear and discomfort involved in large-scale infestations.

In the most exceptional cases, infestations have been known to spur on a mental issue known as delusional parasitosis. The condition, sometimes resulting from severe prior insect infestations, is characterized by a mistaken belief that an individual is suffering from a skin infestation. The afflicted will often report tactile hallucinations such as a crawling feeling on or under the skin.

Serious infestations can result in the development of insomnia, anxiety, and stress disorders.

I had to move recently and put most of my things in storage – a huge risk factor for catching bed bugs. For reasons that should be apparent, I’ve done research for my own edification on bed bug protection, prevention, and eradication.

I’m here to present a few key pieces of information I’ve learned and dispel one central piece of misinformation in bed bug management.

Bed-bug proof mattresses and mattress accessories don’t exist

Let’s say this up front; the idea that you can buy a specific mattress or mattress accessory to completely prevent or eradicate bed-bugs is patently false.

You’ll see terms like “bed-bug proof” thrown around often in mattress and box-spring encasement marketing. The truth is that the above term is more than a bit nebulous and unspecific. It implies that if you put that cover on your bed, you won’t end up with bugs in your bed.

That’s untrue.

Using protection in the bedroom

Putting on a bed-bug proof mattress encasement is a lot like putting on a condom. It’s an effective barrier, but its usage is highly specific and only protects a small area against certain things.

Bed-bug proof mattresses encasements like this one are typically fashioned out of a thick polyester knit, designed to fit over your mattress and seal tight with a zipper. These covers will prevent bed bugs from traveling through the polyester barrier.

The encasement does not, however, directly kill, repel, or fix a bed bug infestation. It simply forms a physical barrier blocking the bugs from playing house on the fabric surface of your mattress.

Sure, putting on a mattress encasement is a great idea. Any bed bugs directly on the mattress’ surface will be sealed in under the encasement and die without your tasty blood to feed on. Any bed bugs outside the barrier will not be able to get through the cover to make their own little home in the folds of your mattress.

The encasement does not, however, directly kill, repel, or fix a bed bug infestation.

Monsters in the closet

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that bed bugs can’t crawl on the surface of your encasement to get to you or hide inside the seams and nom on you at night. Nor does it mean that the bed bugs in your room can’t simply move from the mattress to your laundry pile, dresser, closet or headboard – there are plenty of places in a bedroom, dorm, or hotel where they love to live.

Once the sun goes down and you fall asleep, they’ll crawl out of hiding and make the journey to your mattress with the “bed bug proof encasement” and have a nice dinner party on your face.

Putting on an encasement protects one part of a piece of furniture in your bedroom from a bed bug infestation, but doesn’t do much to stop them from inhabiting elsewhere. Much like using barrier-based sexual protection, a mattress encasement contains a small part of the problem without fixing the root cause.

It’s important to remember that bed bugs don’t just live in beds, and an infestation is a systemic and house-wide issue that requires professional systemic intervention – not just a mattress encasement.

It’s important to remember that bed bugs don’t just live in beds.

How to prevent bed bugs 

Like all things, there is no perfect solution. There are, however, many things we can do to prevent these pests from pulling a coup de cot.

  1. Buy a mattress encasement (aka mattress protector). I’ve been mattress encasement-shaming a lot here, but the fact is they are a useful form of protection while moving or storing a mattress, and for keeping the critters from making a nest in your mattress.
  2. When storing cloth goods, seal them in airtight containers. Through no fault of your own, bed bugs can migrate from one habitat to another and seek refuge in your belongings.
  3. Reduce clutter. Fewer nooks and crannies mean fewer homes for bed bugs.
  4. Keep hard surfaces clean to remove or kill any eggs that might be getting ready to hatch there.
  5. Make sure your apartment or home is well sealed and closed off to the outside world.
  6. Be wary of second-hand goods. As an avid thrifter and occasional dumpster diver, it’s difficult – but necessary – for me to caution readers on taking free or low-cost furniture. Check every single inch of furniture with a flashlight before bringing any used goods into your home.
  7. Keep your eyes open for signs of critters – vigilance is key.

Steps to take if you find bed bugs

Maybe it’s already too late for you. In that case, good luck. But there are some tips and steps to take (and take quickly) if you find yourself in the company of bed bugs.

  1. Act fast, and arm yourself with knowledge. The EPA has a fairly comprehensive fact sheet and guide to dealing with bed bugs here. Read up, and get ready to make some tough decisions.
  2. If you don’t want to throw away your mattress, get a mattress encasement. Pick a quality one because bed bugs can live more than a year without food. If you open up the encasement early or inadvertently puncture the fabric, you could bring yourself back to square one.
  3. If you have any valuables or other items you’ll be taking out of the bedroom before the exterminators come in, put them in an airtight bag. You’ll be able to treat them with heat to hopefully kill the pests inside. Be careful though – even if items appear bed bug free, their eggs are nearly invisible to the naked eye and could be almost anywhere.
  4. Immediately launder all clothing and bedding you want to keep in hot water (at least 120 Fº) and dry on as high of heat as possible.
  5. Find somewhere else to sleep for a while. Pick a friend, partner, or hotel. You don’t want to get bitten and rashy if you can help it, and the longer you delay a serious and systemic extermination effort, the more serious and systematic the infestation will become.
  6. Call a professional. You can DIY turquoise jewelry, a night table, or fireworks (you shouldn’t), but with pest problems it’s always best to have an expert do it for you. It doesn’t matter how many wikihow articles you’ve read – a well-reviewed exterminator will always know more than you. Check sites like Yelp or Angie’s List for to make sure you’re hiring the right person.
  7. Be patient. These things can take time.

So there we have it.

Bed bugs, while without stringers and disease free, can wreak havoc on families or entire buildings if left unchecked. The problem is growing, and it’s important to be aware of risk factors, prevention tips, eradication methods, and common misconceptions surrounding the little critters.

Mattress covers and encasements are only a starting point for bed bug treatment and prevention, and concerned sleepers need to be aware of the systemic nature of an infestation of this type if they want to sleep soundly.

For more on bedlam in the bedroom, stay tuned on Mattress Advisor.