Introduction: How to Treat And/or Prevent Bedbugs [mostly] Without Chemicals
So you think you have bedbugs? Bedbugs are frightening, and for good reason. New studies show they can harbor bacteria, protozoa and viruses and can spread them to animals while feeding. It's always best to start taking steps to eradicating the bedbugs as soon as you know you have them, before they breed out of control and spread to other parts of your house or to your neighbors (eep!). You can take these steps to "bed-bug proof" your house or apartment preventatively or after determining that you have bed bugs.
Step 1: Consider the Source
The source of the infestation will dictate your first step. Your possible sources of contamination are:
a) an item brought into the home such as an infested suitcase or furniture picked up off the street. In which case,
Quarantine the offending item.
If you have an item or items that you suspect are the source of the bedbugs, find a bag to enclose it. Secure the bag with duct tape and make sure it's air tight. You may want to double bag it if the bag is a trash bag, since they tear easily.
b) moving into a place with an established bed bug problem. In which case,
Contain and limit your exposure.
If you've recently moved someplace where bedbugs are an existing problem, take steps outlined in this article to limit the infestation as much as possible. First contain your stuff that you think has not been exposed, then work on the rest.
c) someone near you has brought them in, in which case,
Work together and/or limit your exposure.
If a neighbor or household member has brought the bedbugs in, work on the problem in concert with them if possible. If he or she is not willing or able, limit your exposure as much as possible and seal off your living areas first.
d) an unknown source. In which case,
Mindfully follow the steps to isolate the problem.
Maybe you got them from the bus, by passing an infested mattress on a street, or from a visitor or neighbor. Who knows? But after knowing what to look for mindfully and sequentially following the steps listed here, you may find the answer. It's always best to nip it in the bud.
Step 2: Know Thine Enemy
It's important to consider all vectors carefully when assessing the scope of the problem. Do some preliminary research on the bedbug's habits and their life cycle. Here are some highlights:
a) They make nests that are usually within 15 feet of where you sleep. They are attracted by pheromones back to the nest after a bloodmeal to grow and reproduce. A few will splinter off into separate nests when a female leaves because there are too many males in one area. Their nests contain black or very dark brown feces, live bugs, shed exoskeletons, and translucent white eggs.
b)They have a distinctive so-called "rotten rasberry" smell that is identifiable in larger infestations.
c) They can leave tell-tale bloodstains on sheets and bedding that usually happen when you squish them after a bloodmeal or your fresh bite smears on the sheets.
d) Bedbugs are first attracted to your exhaled carbon dioxide, then to your body heat as they hone in.
e) Bites appear on exposed skin during the night. Bites often come in groups together. The old adage "breakfast, lunch, and dinner" signifies three bites in row being a common sign of bedbugs. They are different from mosquito, flea, or other insect bites in the following ways: they are generally larger than flea bites, and they obvious puncture holes, and they itch more while under hot water like during a shower. The bites show up late, and resolve slowly. Bites usually show up 12-30 hours after the bite, and they may take two weeks or more to resolve. Up to 20% of people simply may not react to the bites and have no obvious symptoms.
What else should you know to protect yourself from bed bugs?
They prefer to be active during the early morning hours and just before sunrise ( 2- 6 AM), but a desperate enough bug will leave its nest anytime.
They prefer to feed on humans every 3-5 days but will resort to nearby pets or animal nests if desperate.
They can jump. Bedbugs have been known to crawl vertical distances and jump around 3 feet horizontally in order to feed.
They can bite through thin clothing.
Studies show their lifespan without a bloodmeal can be up to 18 months given the correct conditions. This is affected by temperature: the higher temperature, the shorter the lifespan and life-cycle and vice versa.
They lay eggs with a binding glue. This means they are not easily dislodged, so some abrasion is necessary to remove them.
They can live through repeated freeze-and-thaw cycles, but all stages from egg to adult can be killed by exposure to heat of 115 F for 7 minutes.
Younger bugs are more susceptible to dessication (drying out) than older bugs.
Okay, now let's get to the action.
Step 3: Vacuum
With a high enough powered vacuum, Vacuum every crevice that you suspect bed bugs to be nesting in. Make sure to be thorough. Cleaning as you vacuum is a good idea so that way you won't mistake some lint or a sesame seed for a bedbug later on. Focus on baseboards, woodwork, furniture, books and areas within 15 feet of the bed, where bed bugs are said to nest. Be sure to securely enclose the vacuum in an airtight container, empty the vacuum, or dispose of the vacuum bag as soon as possible after using it.
Step 4: Wash And/or Dry Everything That You Can
If it can be washed, wash it on the hottest setting. As you pick up laundry, put it in bags to transport it from point A to the washing machine. Those suckers can jump.
Dry what you wash immediately. Put it on the hottest cycle and dry it for at least 2 hours continuously at the hottest temperature. It's a safe bet if the laundry is at least 110 F degrees for 2 hours that all the bedbugs and their eggs will be killed. [Many sources agree on this, and Wikipedia states they die with 7 minutes at 113 F] Most older dryers in good condition can reach and hold this temperature quickly, but newer ones may not. Check yours before relying on it.
What you can't wash can be dried. Curtains, silk fabrics, woolens, dry clean only clothes, and tennis shoes can get the same dryer treatment.
Step 5: Contain All the Sanitized Fabrics
Make sure the stuff you just sanitized by washing and/or drying is contained in either air tight bins or bags. Ziploc makes JUMBO bags that are perfect for this purpose. You can designate some for clean laundry, and others for dirty laundry, and re-use until you are sure this fiasco is over.
Step 6: Clear Clutter
The less clutter you have, the less you'll have to clean on your bed-bug extermination rounds. This is especially important around your bed, where the bugs are most likely to be hiding. Cardboard and hardback books are two things that have many nooks and crannies that bedbugs can wiggle into. What you throw away, try to clean or contain it securely in trash bags before disposing of it to keep the bedbugs from spreading to others.
Step 7: Disassemble and Inspect
While cleaning, disassemble and visually inspect around your bed. Bedbugs and their eggs are visible, but hard to spot. They're usually very flat (as thin or thinner than a credit card), and they like tight space with very little airflow, usually within 10 to 15 feet of their host at night. They can have one or many nests, since they signal their locations to each other with pheromones. Keep your eyes open for blood stains on fabric, and their feces, which look like little black specks as to hints where they're hiding.
- Disassemble your bed frame and and check in the joints and screw holes of the bed
- Check about the seam of your mattress and pillows
- Visually check while physically cleaning the other furniture nearby
- Unscrew the screws on the switch plates and outlets.
Be read to suction up (with vacuum) or kill bedbugs if you see them. They move quickly.
Step 8: Put a Bedbug Proof Cover on Your Mattress
If you want to keep your mattress, there are bedbug proof covers ranging from $30-$300 that you can order or buy locally that are safe to sleep on. They keep the bedbugs in and out. They can be anything from noisy polyethylene to organic cotton. This will need to cover your mattress for at least 18 months to be safe, so carefully consider your purchase.
There are also disposable mattress covers that can be used to contain the mattress if you want to dispose of it. It is irresponsible to set out a bedbug infested mattress for disposal without a containing cover. Try to set it out the day of the garbage pick up to not attract attention or accidentally have someone pick it up, or take it to a dump if you want to get rid of it ASAP.
If you live in a city where large pickups must be requested, call your garbage company ahead of time. If you live in an apartment building or share garbage facilities, you may have to ask your property manager to request a garbage large item pick-up. One large item pick-up costs about $30 depending on where you live.
Step 9: Steam
Steam cleaning can be a useful tool in ridding a house of bedbugs. What can't be washed and dried or easily visually inspected can be steamed. Bedbugs are killed on contact with steam.
It is best for carpets, baseboards, wood work, and luggage.
Steamers can be rented or bought.
Take caution. Steam can ruin particle board and MDF furniture, paper, some fabrics, and can cause patterns on some flat paint and unprotected drywall. It can also burn you.
Step 10: Bag It, Bin It, Zip It, Tape It
Once you clean everything, contain it in an airtight container to make sure it stays clean of bed bugs.
Bins can be be used for heavier items. Clear bins make it easier to see whats inside. The opening between the lid and bin can be secured with maskings or painters tape. Jumbo and various sized ziplocs are helpful as they can be opened and closed and reused, and they are relatively cheap.
Labels are helpful.
If it's been cleaned, write "Cleaned/Steamed/Inspected/ [date]".
If it's dirty write "NOT CLEANED." and optionally, you can quarantine or fumigate these items.
If you can live without out, securely contain it and do not open it for at least 18 months. Label it "DO NOT OPEN UNTIL [DATE]."
There are many sprays that purport to be useful to rid oneself of bed bugs. Though it is a chemical, if there are items that you cannot visually inspect disassemble, or clean, you can fumigate them. It's called "Proof" bed bug spray. It's been approved by the EPA to kill 100% of bedbugs given it's used as instructed. I am not paid to advertise this product.
"Proof" uses neem oil as an active ingredient, which has shown to be an endocrine disruptor, but it has also been used safely in India for millennia for everything from pest control to skin care. Proof has a very strong floral corn chip smell according to many consumers. The main process used is called "Rag in a bag", which is described in detail on their website. It takes 7 days and a few ounces of Proof to fumigate a large garbage bag of stuff.
In my experience, Proof should only be used as a last resort for things that cannot be cleaned or quarantined and does not soak up smells easily, such as phones or computers. In my opinion it should NOT be used on porous or absorbent material, as the smell lingers heavily on everything. It should not be sprayed indoors for two reasons. 1) It's been anecdotally reported to cause breathing and heart problems upon exposure. 2) If sprayed inside it will serve only temporary pest deterrent (the bugs will flee from the scent) and will scatter the bugs throughout your dwelling and possibly to your neighbors.
You can order Proof online or get it at Walmart (only a few stores carry it, you can check on the website).
Step 11: Caulk
Caulking woodwork such as baseboards, windows, outlets, and furniture can be a permanent solution to bug-proofing your house or apartment. Bugs can spread between rooms and stories through walls and openings between the walls and floors, around light fixtures, and outlets.
Tools needed include a caulking gun, painters tape, caulk, a bucket, and rags. Choose an interior acrylic caulk that can be painted. Often caulks can be tinted to match the paint color of the trim or wall. It takes 2-3 hours to caulk the average room.
If you live in an apartment where you are not allowed to caulk or caulking is just not an option for you, you can tape crevices around the room shut with painters tape. Use painters tape over other tape because it leaves walls adhesive-free and intact when it's pulled away. It's not an attractive solution, and you will have to make sure the tape stays secured for at least 18 months in areas you suspect are infested. Painters tape will dry up and may come off over time, especially around windows when exposed to excessive heat or cold.
Step 12: Consider Your Actions
Are your computer and phone your night and day companions? If so, clean them as thoroughly as you can, and keep them in ziplocs when not in use.
Keep everything you know to be clean of bed bugs away from the bed so it cannot be recontaminated.
After you wake up in the morning, undress in the bathtub to see if there are any bugs on your body or in your clothes. Then immediately bag and seal your night clothes and change into uncontaminated, clean clothes.
Bedbugs prefer to feed every 3-5 days, and are most active just before sunrise. Keep this in mind and try not to attract them to other rooms of your house that you may be in at that time.
You can keep a flashlight by your bed, and wait up until 4 am to see the suckers, but it's best not to do this every night. You need to be rested to fight the good fight.
Step 13: Additional Options
If these steps don't bring you relief, there are other products or methods that may help.
- Put bowls of soapy water under bed legs with bed risers to catch bedbugs that attempt to climb up the bed.
- Sleep in an enclosed cot with a mosquito net.
- Buy a portable bedbug oven to bake the bugs to death: Packtite
- Diatomaceous Earth (D.E.) is a physical pesticide. It is an inert powder that is dusted onto surfaces. It is "natural" in that is comes from diatom fossils. It works by cutting the bugs that physically touch it, which over time desiccates them. At the same time, it cuts your lungs and mucous membranes and is harmful to breathe in. Many people are sensitive to it, and it can set off asthma attacks. I would recommend using it judiciously if at all, in places where the dust is unlikely to be stirred up.
- There are carbon dioxide emitting traps that are only really useful for estimating the size of your bedbug problem. You can buy them or make them yourself with dry ice.
-Spray your clothes and yourself with diluted neem oil before you sleep, a proven bedbug repellent.
Step 14: A Special Note About Beauveria Bassiana
A fungus called Beauveria bassiana is a naturally occuring fungus that grows in soil. It is known to be extremely effective in eradicating bedbugs. In tests it's killed 100% of the bugs meant to be infected, and is very highly praised by many who may have used it personally.
It is commonly sold as an garden-use pesticide for termites, aphids, beetles, whiteflys and the like. It works by spraying the fungal spores in a glycerin solution around areas of known nests or where the insect is suspected to pass. The insect picks up a spore and unknowingly takes it back to its nest, where it spreads within days to the surrounding insects.
It is only effective against a limited range of insects, and not known to cause any human disease. Though like any aerosolized compound, it's advised to use a mask or appropriate respirator and disposable or washable clothes and to leave the area alone for 4 hours after application. Because it's a fungus there may be a possibility of a person forming an allergy to it with repeated use and exposure.
Though no Beauveria bassiana product is currently marketed for the use of the pesticide fungus indoors, there are some for outdoor and greenhouse use that have been used illegally indoors with great anecdotal success. There is currently research and development to make a product legal for indoor use.
I cannot endorse this method publicly because it is illegal, but according to many sources, treatment in this method differs from other methods in the following ways: First, you do not want to upset the nests or move things around much because it is better for the bedbugs to be in their nests to get targeted. Secondly, you do not want to sleep in other rooms. Anecdotally, very little of the solution is needed; approximately 1/2 ounce in 8 ounces of water in a designated spray bottle. The fungus solution should be sprayed on any surfaces where bugs have been seen or are expected to crawl including around the bed, baseboards of the room, sofas, etc. It is said that the surface should be just misted, not saturated, and on only used sparingly because of its initial smell and it can leave a faint sticky residue. After application, it is suggested to remove mask and clothes and place in a bag to wash. There reports to be no scent to the product other than the scent of the fungus itself --reportedly a cucumber like smell which will fade within a few days. The fungus stays active for 10 to 14 days, after which it could be re-applied until the problem disappears. People reportedly see the occurrence of bites rapidly dwindle within a week following treatment. The infestation usually resolves within two to three treatments.
As with any pesticide, resistance can occur so it is advised by some to use it sparingly where needed and only for a short period of time.
The fungus can be found here on amazon.com. Again, it is only labeled and distributed for the use specified and any undesignated use is illegal.
Step 15: Don'ts
Don't let the bed bugs bite. Sleep in long, tight clothes exposing as little skin as possible. Wear gloves, pants or legging tucked into socks, and a balaclava if you have to.
Don't sleep in many areas of your house to escape the bugs. This will only bring the bed bugs to you, and spread them throughout your house.
Don't be paralyzed by fear. Worrying doesn't fix the problem. Just by thinking about it and then taking steps toward fixing the problem, you will find yourself building momentum and able to adapt to the problem in the moment.
Don't use bug bombs, deterrents, most pesticides, or things that have not been proven to kill bedbugs. At best, they'll just waste your time and money, at worst they could scatter them throughout the house, prolong the problem, and be detrimental to your health.
Don't keep this a secret from your neighbors. Yes, having bedbugs is embarrassing to some people, but if everyone is sharing a building, everyone has invested interest in ridding the property of these bedbugs. They may also have bedbugs. If so, wouldn't you like to know?
Don't reintroduce bugs into your house by picking up stray furniture that cannot be inspected easily for bedbugs or by hanging around furniture on the streets.
Step 16: Repeat
The better job you do the first time around, the less times you'll have to go through the process.
Attention, persistence, and thoroughness is key in this fight. You repeat these steps as often as you feel possible until you are no longer getting bitten at night.
If you find you are getting the same number of bites or more over time, and nothing you're doing is working, it may be time to call in a pest control operator (PCO).
Step 17: Be Cautious Until You're Sure
Bedbugs can live for over 18 months without a blood meal, so it's hard to say when you're out of the woods. Some people say going 6 weeks without bites may be cause for a small celebration of success.
As a precaution, always assume that if you've stayed in travel lodging that you picked up some bedbugs. Wash and dry the contents of your luggage and vacuum and quarantine the suitcase until the coast is clear.
And once your out of this you'll know that if it ever happens again, you can deal with it.