How to Avoid Bedbugs – and How to Get Rid of Them

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My mom manages an apartment complex. Last month, a tenant called her in a panic. He was covered in itchy welts. He couldn’t walk into his apartment without feeling like bugs were crawling on him. And he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in days. He’d fled to a hotel room to get some relief.

My mom called an exterminator. But soon after, another tenant called with the same problem. These weren’t easy-to-kill pests like fleas or fire ants. They were bedbugs – and they were spreading.

Bedbug infestations are becoming more common. In a survey of 38 city, state, and county consumer protection agencies by the Consumer Federation of America and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators, bedbugs were the fastest-growing and worst complaint.

Bedbugs are getting so bad that Terminix has been compiling an Annual Bedbug-Infested Cities list since 2010. This year’s winner: Philadelphia. Cincinnati, New York City, Chicago, and Detroit also made it into the Top 5.

Once bedbugs have infested your house, you’ll need a professional exterminator to get rid of them. In my mom’s case, she spent $1,200. Here is what you need to know to keep that from happening to you…

What bedbugs are

Bedbugs are tiny pests that feed on human blood. Unlike many insects, they live inside your mattress – or pillows, blankets, couch, and clothing. They can also spread into your walls, electrical outlets, and appliances. They leave behind eggs, skin, and excrement.

And if that wasn’t gross enough, they bite – a lot. The tenant I talked about before? They had bitten him so many times he had to visit a doctor for help, and while the doctor told him that bedbugs don’t spread illnesses, they do leave behind itchy bite marks.

How you get them

The most obvious way homes become infested is by bringing in soft furniture that was already playing host to bedbugs or their eggs. Once inside, the bed bugs will spread to every warm hiding spot in the house.

Bedbugs infest hotels too, so if you travel, you might bring home more than some towels.

And while it’s not nearly as likely, you can pick them up from friends’ or relatives’ houses, dorms, schools, and public buses.

Treatment for infestations

Over-the-counter bug spray won’t work on bedbugs, and even the usual chemical sprays used by exterminators have little effect. If you do wind up with an infestation, you’ll have to pay for specialized treatments.

In my mom’s case, the exterminator suggested using a combination of high-heat steam and chemicals.

First, the tenants had to leave for 24 hours. Next, the exterminator emptied closets, dresser drawers, and laundry baskets for treatment. All of the fabric surfaces in the houses, including the mattress, box springs, couches, clothing, and towels were treated with steam and then sealed in plastic.

The apartment was then sealed off for 24 hours to give the high heat time to kill the remaining bed bugs. Afterwards, the exterminator came back and treated the entire place with a chemical solution. The process took two days and cost $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment. A larger house would have cost much more. Some experts told The New York Times that it isn’t uncommon to spend $5,000.

Thirty days later, the exterminator returned again to do a visual inspection. Once the tenant moves out of the apartment, he’ll install a motion sensor that picks up on any movement to test the carpet and walls. The motion sensor will cost $85 and must be done in every vacant apartment – in case the bedbugs have spread through the walls.

How to avoid the whole mess

Considering the cost of extermination, prevention is much cheaper than the cure. Follow these steps and you’ll greatly reduce your chances of infestation.

When buying used furniture…

  • Look it over – Bedbugs are small, brown, and flat. While they’re not big, both bugs and eggs are visible with the naked eye. You can also see tiny brownish red stains left behind. Before taking used sofas or mattresses into your house, inspect them carefully. Remove and unzip any cushions. Look inside crevices on sofas and flip mattress over to inspect the underside.
  • Treat it harshly – You can’t treat heavy infestations yourself, but you may have some success (and peace of mind) by treating smaller possible infestations. Run a steamer over every inch of the furniture, including in any crevices. You can also apply a chemical spray designed for bedbugs, like Phantom and Transport.
  • Wrap it tightly – Before bringing a second-hand mattress inside your home, place the mattress inside a case with a zippered closure. Many retailers sell cases designed for bedbugs. If there are any bedbugs on the mattress, they will eventually die without food – but bedbugs can live for several months without feeding.

When traveling…

  • Look it over – Place your suitcase as far away from the bed as possible, and elevate it off the floor as soon as you walk in the room. Remove the bedding and inspect the mattresses for bedbugs. If you think you see signs of infestation, ask to change rooms.
  • Hang your clothes – Take your clothes out of the suitcase and hang them up. Avoid putting items in the dresser where bedbugs can hide. Instead, place your delicates in a sealed plastic bag on a shelf in the closet.
  • Wash before re-entry – Wash any clothing you took on your trip in hot water and dry on high heat before you go back into your house. This will kill any bedbugs that may have come home with you.
  • Treat your suitcase – OK, this is severe and only works if you have a large stand-alone freezer, but: Toss your suitcase in a deep freezer for 24 to 48 hours. The cold will kill any bedbugs.
  • Look it over again – Inspect your clothes and suitcases after you wash or freeze them. Two survivors can quickly multiply into a whole-home infestation.

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