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Don't Let the Bed Bugs Bite: Tips for Prevention and Eradication

4/27/2011 11:00:48 AM

Tags: bed bugs, bedbugs, pests, non-toxic pest control, pesticides, eradication, Miriam Landman

“Bed bugs” are small nocturnal insects that feed on blood. (Cimex  lectularius is the most common species of bed bug.) Some people who are bitten by them get itchy welts on their skin. However, the bugs have not been found to transit any diseases to humans.

Bed bugs are typically found on mattresses, box springs and bed frames, bedding, clothing, and in any dark cracks, seams, or crevices in beds, furniture, walls, or floors. They can travel through water pipes, wall voids, and ducts, and can spread from room to room.

Adult bed bugs are about 1/4-inch long and 1/8-inch wide; younger ones are smaller (often about 3/16 of an inch long or the size of a pinhead). They have flat, grayish-brown or reddish-brown bodies with six legs, and after feeding, they become round and red. They give off a sweet, musty odor. Their eggs are white and very small, and their excrement appears as tiny brown or black spots, which can look like small blood stains if smeared.

Bed bug  

Here are some rules for prevention, as well as tips for getting rid of bed bugs if they do appear.

Keeping Bed Bugs Out 

  • Consider getting a protective plastic cover for your mattress(es) and box spring(s) to keep bugs out/off of the bed. Tape up any tears or holes that appear in the mattress, box spring, or plastic covering.
  • Eliminate excess clutter (particularly near your beds and clothing), to reduce the number of places where the bugs can hide.
  • If you have been staying elsewhere or traveling, check your luggage and belongings for bed bugs before bringing them inside. Unpack your clothes directly into the laundry and wash everything with hot water.
  • If you are considering buying any used/second-hand items, check them carefully for bed bugs before buying them, and wash them before bringing them into your home.

Getting Rid of Bed Bugs 

While some pests can pose health concerns for building occupants, so can many pesticides. Pesticides and insecticides are poisons, and as such they are often poisonous to humans as well as to pests. Studies have linked some pesticides to cancer, birth defects, neurological disorders, and immune system disorders, as well as allergies. Therefore, pesticides should only be used as a last resort.

If the steps below are not sufficient to eliminate a bed bug problem and an insecticide must be used, ask an experienced professional to recommend the least-toxic insecticide that will be effective, and have it applied by a professional who will take safety precautions. The bed bugs’ eggs are not affected by insecticides, so the treatment will probably need to be applied several times to kill the hatchlings. Note: Bed bugs have become resistant to some pesticides, and using harsher pesticides could just end up making the bugs stronger, as they could build up resistance to those.  

If you want to research insecticide options on your own, check out the EPA’s Bed Bug Product Search Tool. As a general rule, avoid products that are labeled “Danger—Poison,” as those tend to be the most toxic to humans. Never use pesticides indoors that are intended for outdoor use. And don’t use (or allow others to apply) any product that does not specifically list bed bugs on the product label. Some sticky traps are designed for bed bugs. (Note: Baits for ants and cockroaches will not work on bed bugs.)

But before using any pesticides/insecticides, first try these non-chemical strategies:

  • If you think you’ve found bed bugs, first make sure that’s what they are. Have a professional identify them, or using a flashlight and ideally a magnifying glass, compare the bugs to photos of bed bugs to make a positive identification. (There are many websites with close-up photos of the bugs. Just do an online search for “bed bug” images.)
  • Infested materials can be rid of bed bugs by being heated to at least 113 degree for an hour (or by being frozen at less than 0 degrees for at least 4 days).
  • Wash your bedding and clothing with hot, soapy water, and dry them on the hottest dryer setting.
  • Vacuum cracks, crevices, and other hiding places in walls, floors, and furniture where adult bed bugs or eggs are found. Dispose of the vacuum contents right away in a sealed trash bag, in an outdoor garbage bin.
  • Use hot, soapy water to wipe all surfaces and crevices where the bugs might be living.
  • Seal up any cracks where the bugs are living. Seal/tape up any tears in mattresses or other areas where the bugs could hide.
  • Eliminate excess clutter (particularly near your beds and clothing), to reduce the number of places where the bugs can hide.
  • Try sprinkling food-grade diatomaceous earth in areas where the bed bugs have been seen, to prevent them from hiding in those places again. (Food-grade diatomaceous earth can be found at feed stores.)
  • If a mattress or box spring is infested with bed bugs, it will probably need to be disposed of (unless the entire thing can be put into a large freezer), as the bugs can live inside the mattress where they can’t be reached. Mattresses should never be treated with insecticides, unless a specialist verifies that the treatment is non-toxic to humans. Infested mattresses should never be donated, but can be recycled. When disposing of a mattress or other infested objects, deface them so that others will not be tempted to take them home.
  • Tightly wrap in plastic any infested possessions (including mattresses) before carrying them out of a room for disposal, to avoid spreading the infestation to other rooms.

Consult with a licensed, experienced pest control professional for further advice and treatment options.

For additional information, go to these webpages: 

EPA’s Bed Bug Information

Beyond Pesticides: Bed Bug Info (factsheet, articles, etc.)

New Natural Bed Bug Busters (Mother Earth News article) – Includes a non-toxic product recommendation 

Nontoxic Bed Bug Control is Possible (San Francisco Chronicle article) – Includes a non-toxic product recommendation 

Center for Disease Control’s Bed Bug FAQs

 Miriam Landman is an accomplished writer, editor, and sustainability advisor with expertise in green living, green building, and sustainable communities. For daily links to sustainable solutions and success stories, connect to her Facebook page for The Green Spotlight.

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Post a comment below.


Tara Tompson
9/29/2014 3:19:25 PM
The last apartment I was in got bed bugs. I don't think I brought them with me but I want to make sure I didn't. My room wasn't infected but the one down the hall was and we share a washer. Thanks for all the great information!

6/16/2014 10:42:08 AM
I have heard of using essential oils especially cedar to get rid of them. I have my Sister-in-law using this method to keep them out of her home as she is in a area where they seem to be every where, does this truly work?

Tara Tompson
5/20/2014 2:14:24 PM
We just got our apartment sprayed for bed bugs. I want to make sure those bugs never come back! It was gross enough that the neighbors had them! Tara |

3/20/2014 1:49:49 AM
Some notes about using Diatomaceous Earth (DE): DE does work if left on surfaces and textiles (carpets, sheets, mattresses, blankets, couches, etc.) but it must be left down for days or weeks. DE works by cutting small cuts into the bed bugs as they crawl over a surface that has DE on it. It also gets int the bed bug's joints and openings. DE is simply sharp, broken calcium shells of ancient creatures that were very very small. Google "Diatomaceous Earth" and look at the microscopic images. DE has the consistency of flour or fine dust. The cost is about $10 for a 10lb bag from any Garden supply/hardware store. There is nothing toxic about DE, but you would want to wear a respirator, goggles, and long-sleeved clothes(shirt, pants) and take a shower after applying or disturbing (vacuuming) DE as it can be potentially irritating though I have not suffered any effects. It works, just keep it down for a few weeks...or spread it evenly on affected surfaces and vacuum it up in 36-48 hours, then do it again. A friend's wife complained that guests might come over and notice a white powder on the carpet and some furniture...I simply asked how she would feel if her guests blamed her for exposing them to bedbugs. Diatomaceous Earth, if applied effectively, will take care of bed bugs and other household insects (fleas, ticks, spiders, roaches, etc.) so long as it is left to work. I read a comment on another site where the DE was vacuumed up immediately after application. Needless to say that did not work. Further, DE is very useful in the garden for everything from worms, maggots, beetles, aphids, and other insect pests. DE is safe for pets and babies as long as they don't snort it...just like you would worry if they snorted flour or sugar. WoodBurner23

3/18/2014 4:59:25 PM
An excellent way to kill bedbugs AND their eggs is to buy a cheap steamer from Wal-mart (about $60). You can then steam your mattress, clothes, or any other items that bedbugs can live in. The steamer also works for cracks, crevices, and is 100% non toxic!

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