5 Ways to Beat Bedbugs

Bedbugs are back, but you can send them packing.

April 17, 2009

A bedbug helping itself to a bedtime snack...OF BLOOD! Photo by Piotr Naskrecki/CDC/Harvard University.

Bedbugs, once eradicated by powerful but now banned pesticides like DDT, have become such a nuisance that they’ve spawned national summit meetings and federal legislation, including government-sponsored Bedbug Summits. These meetings all aim to investigate the severity of the problem and to find effective methods to kill the nasty little bloodsuckers. Congress has even pitched legislation to help states pay for programs to control bedbugs in lodging places.


If you’ve noticed clusters or lines of itchy welts on your skin that resemble mosquito bites —and you don’t have any mosquitoes around—you may be another bedbug bite victim. The bugs have appeared in places ranging from luxury hotels to suburban McMansions, making no distinctions between clean lodgings and crowded homeless shelters. But by far, “apartments are the worst,” says Michael Potter, Ph.D., a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky who specializes in urban pest issues. “Bedbugs can move from unit to unit,” he says, and thanks to clutter and a lifetime’s worth of belongings crammed into a small amount of space, it can be hard to uncover all their hiding spaces.

Complicating the issue is that pesticides in use today seem to have little effect, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. On the positive side, however, the study confirmed that bedbug bites don’t transmit diseases from one unsuspecting victim to another.

These insects are icky, though. Should bedbugs ever invade your home or apartment, use these five ways to deal with them:

1. Don’t panic: Call for help. Bedbugs are wily creatures that are very creative in finding hiding spaces. Public health officials recommend hiring a professional exterminator who knows where to look and can use methods that won’t send them scurrying to other hard-to-reach places.

2. Don’t waste money products that claim to kill bedbugs. A growing number of essential-oil based products made from cinnamon, cedar, and the like are appearing on store shelves. “They will kill bedbugs when sprayed directly on them,” says Jerome Goddard, Ph.D., an entomologist from Mississippi State University. “But even soapy water or plain old alcohol will do the same thing.” The sprays, he notes, have little or no residual effects.

3. Consider mechanical controls. Integrated pest management (IPM) techniques that don’t involve pesticide use in your home are better for your health. In this case, however, they may not eliminate the problem completely, says Goddard. “You still need traditional residual pesticides as part of the overall strategy to control bedbugs,” he says. But you can minimize the amount of pesticides needed and avoid repeat exterminator visits by including IPM techniques in your battle plan. These include: getting rid of clutter, particularly under your bed; dismantling your bed frame and scrubbing it with a stiff brush to dislodge eggs; vacuuming rugs and carpets as well as any floor or wall cracks and crevices around the bed; removing dresser drawers and vacuuming them; lying dressers down to vacuum their undersides; and washing bedding in hot water and drying it on high heat. It’s also important (especially in apartments) to caulk and seal cracks in walls and floors that allow bedbugs to move from room to room.

4. Encase your mattress. Encasements designed to protect allergy sufferers from dust mites will kill off any bedbugs inside your mattress and box spring, says Potter, which means you won’t have to throw the mattress out. You can find encasements made specifically to protect you against bedbugs, but most encasements have been found to work, Potter says. The most ecofriendly and healthy options are those made from tightly woven organic cotton. They won’t keep other bedbugs from climbing onto your bed, though (is your skin crawling yet?). Until you’re sure you’ve eradicated the bugs—or if you have to sleep in a room that you suspect has bedbugs—get rid of bed skirts and keep comforters, quilts, and sheets tucked under the mattress so they won’t contact the floor. Move the bed so it doesn’t touch any walls. If you throw out an infested mattress, encasing the new one before you bring it home will save you the cost of ruining yet another mattress, should there be a bedbug rebound.

5. Beware of bringing bugs back. “In a single-family home, bedbugs are more likely than not to have come in with a person who was travelling,” says Potter. On trips, carry a small flashlight so you can inspect hotel beds and use luggage racks rather than setting your suitcase on floors. If you think you might have brought home bugs in your luggage, Stanford University recommends putting your suitcases in garbage bags and leaving them outside in summer heat for 2 to 3 days, which will kill the bugs and their eggs.