The bed bug is an extremely tiny insect that creates very big problems for a homeowner who faces an infestation. The bites of these tiny blood-feeding insects with flat, disc-shaped bodies can take several days to develop the characteristic itchiness and occasional blistering. Because they hide so readily in dark locations, such as the seams of mattresses or cracks in walls and floors, you may not even recognize a bed bug infestation until the itchy bites appear.
As tiny as they are, bed bugs are one of the most troublesome and difficult to control of all pests. According to a 2018 survey by the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), 20 percent of Americans have encountered bed bugs in their home or hotel, or know someone who has, and 76 percent of pest control professionals consider bed bugs to be the most difficult pest to control.
6 Ways to Get Rid of Bed Bugs
Bed bugs have developed a high resistance to the pyrethroid-based foggers and bug bombs that are often quite effective against other pests. When used against bed bugs, these products can cause the insects to scatter, making the problem worse. A 2012 study by Ohio State University, showed that over-the-counter bug bombs and foggers had little effect on bed bugs, even through direct exposure for two hours. In homes and businesses, there is harborage virtually always available and most bed bugs tend to hide in protected spots where they would not be directly contacted by the fogging mist.
The FTC advises consumers who wish to control bed bugs themselves to use an Integrated Pest Management strategy (IPM), which includes prevention, monitoring, and limited chemicals, and to check the EPA product list for products registered for the planned application. The EPA product page includes the ability to search products by a number of factors.
Kill Bed Bugs With Heat
Bed bugs die when their body temperatures reach 113 degrees Fahrenheit, so laundering clothing and bedding at high water temperatures and dryer temperatures will almost always kill them. Immediately upon returning from travels, it's a good idea to launder every item of clothing with this method. It takes about 30 minutes of hot water treatment, or 30 minutes in a dryer at high heat, to kill bed bugs in all stages.
Bed bugs hiding in cracks and crevices in a room can theoretically be killed with heat, but it can be quite hard to get room temperatures high enough to kill hiding bugs. A steam cleaner diligently applied to carpets, crevices, and upholstery can do the trick, though it may take repeated applications to completely eradicate an infestation. Steam cleaners need to use vapor at least 130 degrees Fahrenheit in order to be effective.
Enclosing furniture or other items in sealed clear plastic bags and placing them in direct sunlight for a full afternoon has been shown to be successful in some studies.
Kill Bed Bugs With Cold
Subjecting bedbugs to extreme cold can sometimes be effective at killing them. This can be most practical in climates with very cold weather, where furnishings can be set outdoors at temperatures at or below zero degrees for eight to 10 hours. But such conditions are not common except in the most northern climates.
Appliance freezers may not be successful at killing bed bugs unless they can achieve quite low temperatures. Clothing placed in sealed plastic bags and placed in a freezer kept at zero degrees for at least eight to 10 hours will likely kill all bed bugs.
But cold treatments of rugs, furniture, and clothing will need to be combined with other methods for killing bugs that dwell in room cracks and crevices.
Vacuum Regularly—and Deeply
As an ongoing method of bed bug control, deep-clean sleeping rooms regularly with a powerful vacuum cleaner, making sure to apply suction to all areas of the room, including floor cracks, furniture crevices and upholstery, carpetings, and closets. Dispose of vacuum cleaner contents immediately in sealed plastic bags.
Seal Items in Airtight Containers
Without blood to feed on, bed bugs will eventually die. Sealing a furniture item or clothing in a tight plastic container or plastic bag and storing it for several months will generally kill all stages of the insect.
Use DIY Pesticides
The EPA lists more than 300 products for use against bed bugs, classed into seven different chemical categories.
- Insect growth regulators
However, though these products are approved for use against bed bugs, they are not necessarily very effective—especially when used alone. Several studies have shown that most commercial pesticides have limited effectiveness against bed bugs. This includes the pyrethrins and pyrethroids, both based on natural materials found in chrysanthemum flowers. Pyrethrins and pyrethroids are very successful pesticides against many insects, but they are increasingly ineffective against bed bugs, which are gradually developing immunity to these compounds.
One strategy sometimes recommended is to enclose suspected clothing or luggage items in a sealed airtight container or plastic bag along with a pest strip containing dichlorvos (DDVP) or permethrin. Over several days, the odorless vapors that build up inside the container or bag will kill bed bugs. This may be a good option for treating your luggage and clothing when you return from a trip to ensure that you haven't brought along hitchhiking bed bugs.
Pesticides do remain one weapon in the arsenal against bed bugs, but they should be used in conjunction with other methods as part of an integrated approach. For example, as you thoroughly clean bedding and vacuum mattresses and launder clothing and bedding at high heat, an insecticide spray or dust rated for bed bugs can be used to penetrate cracks and crevices in the bed frame and other furniture in a room to kill insect eggs. But to be effective, pesticides always need to be used in conjunction with other methods, especially heat.
Never try to control bed bugs inside your homes with products that are made for outdoor use. Avoid bombs and foggers, and do not spray pesticides in areas occupied by children or pets, or on top of mattresses, sofas, or other upholstered furniture.
Hire a Professional
Bed bugs are so tenacious that many homeowners will eventually seek the help of a professional exterminator after their DIY methods prove insufficient. However, it is important to ensure that the service company you select is fully qualified and licensed. Ask questions of the companies you are considering to make sure they use a multi-method approach to bed bug control, and that they use effective chemicals in a responsible manner.
What Causes Bed Bugs?
Bed bug infestations virtually always start when the insects are brought into your home by visiting guests or by homeowners returning from travels, where the insects hitch rides in luggage or clothing. These are not insects that thrive on messy conditions, like cockroaches, so an infestation is by no means a sign of slovenly habits.
How to Prevent Bed Bugs
The best control for bed bugs is prevention, and this is best accomplished by careful diligence when you return to your home from travels, especially when you have stayed in many different hotels or boarding facilities. Similarly, you need to be quite careful when traveling guests stay with you.
Bed Bugs vs. Fleas vs. Ticks
While bed bugs look much like ticks in appearance, with flattened, oval bodies, they do not latch on or burrow into the skin as do ticks.
While bed bug bites can look and feel similar to the bites of fleas, there is no mistaking the appearance of the insects. Fleas are extremely quick, hard-to-spot insects that are almost microscopically small, while bed begs, though tiny, are easy to see. Fleas will bite at any time of day and tend to inflict their bites on the lower half of the body, while bed bug bites tend to appear on the upper half of the body, probably because the insects are drawn to the carbon dioxide of the human breath.
Bedbug bites are small and have a dark red spot in the middle of a raised area, and they may appear in a cluster. Flea bites are very small red spots, sometimes appearing in clusters of three.
What are bed bugs more prevalent now?
Although no one is completely sure why bed bugs reappeared in such numbers beginning in the 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suspects that the resurgence is associated with increased resistance of bed bugs to available pesticides; greater international and domestic travel; lack of knowledge regarding control of bed bugs due to their prolonged absence; and the continuing decline or elimination of effective vector/pest control programs at state and local public health agencies.
What do bed bugs look like?
Bed bugs are very small, just over 1/8-inch long, and light to deep brown with flat, oval bodies. They are sometimes mistaken for ticks. After feeding, a bed bug will swell up and become red in color. The eggs are translucent and barely visible, and newly hatched bed bugs are about the size of a poppy seed.
What do bed bug bites look like?
Bites leave small welts, similar to that of a mosquito, on exposed skin. In some cases, the welts may develop small blisters.
Do bed bugs carry diseases?
The CDC does not list bed bugs among the insects known to spread disease. It notes, however, that some individuals are allergic to bed bugs, and may react in a way that required medical attention.
Do bed bugs fly?
Bed bugs cannot fly. They travel by hitching a ride on people's belongings when they are set down in infested areas, then moving with them to another location to start a new infestation.
Bed Bug Facts & Statistics: Bed Bug Info from the NPMA. National Pest Management Association
Jones, Susan C, and Joshua L Bryant. Ineffectiveness of over-the-counter total-release foggers against the bed bug (Heteroptera: Cimicidae). Journal of economic entomology vol. 105,3 (2012): 957-63. doi:10.1603/ec12037
FTC Warns: Ineffective Bed Bug Treatments Can Take A Bite Out of Consumers' Wallets. Federal Trade Commission
Bed Bugs: Do-It-Yourself Control Options. Texas A&M University
Pesticides To Control Bed Bugs. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Bed Bugs. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention