Unfortunately, bed bugs are a common problem. However, there are many things you can do to reduce your risk of a bed bug infestation, and many ways to remove them if you ever find yourself dealing with such an unpleasant situation.
Below we provide an overview of bed bugs, offer tips for preventing bed bugs at home and in hotels, review various bed bug treatment options, and answer common FAQs.
What are bed bugs?
Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius or hemipterus) are small, reddish- or brown-colored parasitic insects whose primary food source is human blood. While visible to the human eye, they are quite small, ranging from 1 to 7 millimeters long depending on how old they are. Think about something small enough to lie along the tip of a pencil.
Bed bugs are nocturnal. They tend to feed during the night by sucking human blood like a mosquito, while a person is asleep. They pierce your skin and suck your blood through their beak for 3 to 10 minutes. Bed bugs will bite any exposed areas not covered by pajamas, such as the face, neck, arms, hands, and feet.
Bed bugs’ preferred living environments are beds, mattresses, box springs, and bed frames, earning them their name, but they’ll also live in other fabric-covered items like piles of clothing or sofas.
Why are bed bugs a problem?
Since bed bugs do not transmit disease among human hosts, they do not pose any real danger. However, they are extremely disgusting and stain your mattresses and bedding with their feces and blood. The bites themselves may itch, but they’re a minor discomfort when compared to the psychological toll. When a person is dealing with a bed bug infestation, any slight change in air can give you the creepy crawlies.
How common are bed bugs?
Bed bugs are extremely common. Nearly all (99.6 percent) of pest control professionals have treated at least one case of bed bugs in the last year, according to a 2015 survey in PestWorld magazine.
Bed bugs live all over the world and have traditionally been more of a problem in developing countries, although they’ve been spreading more frequently in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Europe due to increases in travel and immigration. Also, bans on stronger forms of pesticides has fostered their recent widespread existence. (When DDT was in high use during the 1940s and 1950s, bed bugs nearly disappeared.) It’s also possible that bed bugs are evolving to resist insecticides, according to a 2013 study.
For an idea of how common infestations are, here’s a look at the reported infestations in the U.S. and Canada, according to The Bedbug Registry. Since 2006, the site has reported infestations in over 12,000 locations from 20,000 consumers.
Where can you get bed bugs?
Bed bugs find us through our body heat and carbon dioxide when we exhale. Bed bugs live anywhere their human hosts sleep, including:
- Individual living environments like houses, apartment buildings, and condominiums
- Shared living environments like college dorm rooms, senior care homes, and homeless shelters
- Places with frequent human visitation like schools, daycare centers, hospitals
- Travel accommodations like hotels and cruise ships
- Public transportation like buses and trains
Bed bugs can travel up to 100 feet per night but keep their habitat within 8 feet of their human hosts’ sleeping quarters. During the day, they hide in mattresses, bed frames, box springs, headboards, dressers, behind old wallpaper, crevices in upholstered furniture, or any piles of clutter near a bed.
Bed bugs are more common in unsanitary conditions, crowded living quarters (such as shelters or apartment complexes), and homes near bird nests or bat colonies. However, because bed bugs can survive for months without a meal, they can linger in vacant apartments, homes, or hotel rooms for extended amounts of time before being discovered. Even upscale hotel rooms are at risk of bed bugs, as bed bugs can travel in a suitcase and arrive within a day. Their ability to travel has allowed them to find homes at movie theaters, office buildings, or transportation vehicles like trains and buses (where they live in the upholstery).
How to know if you have bed bugs
There are a few tell-tale signs if you have bed bugs. If you notice any of the following, you may unfortunately be dealing with a bed bug infestation.
1. You wake up with bed bug bites.
Bed bug bites are often the first warning sign that you are sharing your bed with bed bugs. If you wake up with bites in rows along any areas of your skin that are exposed during sleep (such as your face, neck, arms, hands, and feet), you may have bed bugs.
Bed bug bites look similar to most bug or mosquito bites – red swollen areas that have a dark red or blistery center. They may also itch like mosquito bites.
Because they look and feel similar to so many other bug bites, you’ll want to confirm your bites are indeed caused by bed bugs by looking for one of the other signs below, such as feces, blood, or exoskeletons in your bedding. Otherwise, you may be dealing with another type of insect, and have less (or more) cause for alarm.
2. You find bed bug feces in your bed.
As the bed bugs feed on your blood, they’ll need a place to defecate, and your bed is as good as anywhere else. Their droppings are small (about the size of a felt tip marker), and often stain your bed. The color may range from a very dark red to black.
Bed bugs do not nest, but they do tend to live in groups, which is why even though the feces are small individually, you’ll be able to notice them en masse.
3. You find bed bug skeletons in your bed.
As the bed bugs grow, they shed their skins throughout their life cycle. Look for clear, tiny oval bug-shaped exoskeletons in your mattress or bedding.
4. You find dark blood stains on your bed.
As the bed bugs feed on you while you sleep, their sucking of your blood may cause smears or stains on your bed or even in your pajamas near the site of the bites.
5. You smell a sweet, musty odor.
Similar to bites, this sign should only cause concern when combined with another warning sign, as a musty odor could easily be a result of something else (like too much new vintage clothing).
How to prevent and find bed bugs
The first step to preventing bed bugs is familiarizing yourself with the above signs of an infestation so you can nip it in the bud as soon as possible. Besides that, there are many steps you can take to reduce your chances of a bed bug infestation.
Preventing bed bugs at home
Here are five ways you can protect your home from bed bugs.
- Clean up clutter and vacuum frequently. Besides mattresses, bed bugs are attracted to piles of clothing where they can stay hidden. Vacuuming frequently sucks up eggs and unwary bed bugs.
- Invest in bed bug prevention products that help you catch bed bugs sooner versus later and stop a full-blown infestation.
- Bed bug mattress encasements fully enclose your mattress with a tight bed-bug proof zipper. These keep the bed bugs from getting in as well as getting out or biting you through the mattress.
- Interceptor traps are shallow cups that you place at the four corners of your bed and other upholstered furniture. As they crawl along your headboard or bed frame, they may slip and fall into these traps.
- Glue traps attract bed bugs and stick them so they can’t escape. You can place these in dark corners or crevices in your home.
- Closely inspect all vintage clothing or furniture before bringing it inside your home. When you get home, immediately transfer vintage clothing from the shopping bag into your washing machine. Wash it on the hot setting and then put it into the dryer for at least 30 minutes.
- Regularly clean your mattress. Cleaning your mattress extends the life of your mattress, and protects you from bed bugs, mold, and dust mites. It also helps prevent or minimize unsightly stains.
- Caulk and seal all cracks and openings in walls and floorings, as these places often serve as harborage areas.
Preventing bed bugs at hotels
Nothing ruins a vacation like bringing home bed bugs. Prevent that unhappy scenario by following these bed bug prevention trips wherever you travel.
- Before you settle in at your hotel, inspect the room for any signs of bed bugs. Check the mattress, headboard, pillows, and luggage racks for exoskeletons, blood, or feces.
- Keep your suitcase away from the bed and avoid using the luggage rack.
- Once you get home, immediately transfer your clothes directly from your suitcase into a washing machine and wash and dry them on the hot cycle. Closely inspect the rest of your luggage.
- Store your suitcases in a room besides your bedroom. An outdoor garage or basement is ideal as it’s more exposed to the elements and extremes in temperature than the rest of your home.
Pest control specialists Orkin summarize the above tips with the following helpful S.L.E.E.P. acronym:
- Survey surfaces for signs of bed bugs.
- Lift and look for all hiding spots, such as under the mattress, bed frame, and headboard.
- Elevate your luggage away from the bed and wall.
- Examine your luggage carefully when you return home.
- Place all your clothing into the dryer immediately upon arrive home.
Canine bed bug detection
Humans are constantly finding new ways that dogs can better our lives. One of the latest is through sniffing out bed bugs.
Dogs have over three hundred million receptors in their nose (humans, by contrast, only have about thirty million). Those receptors help specially trained bed bug dogs boast a 97 percent detection rate at finding live bed bug infestations. These canine pest detectors often include bloodhounds, beagles, border collies, and jack russell terriers, which undergo extensive training to be certified through the National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association (NESDCA).
These bed bug K9 teams are often hired by residential facilities or hotels to find bed bugs in the early stages of an infestation, when it’s easier and cheaper to get rid of them.
How to get rid of bed bugs
If you have a bed bug infestation, you have several options for treatment, ranging from DIY bed bug removal to professional fumigation.
DIY home remedies to get rid of bed bugs
It is totally possible to get rid of bed bugs yourself. Follow these tips.
Removing bed bugs from your mattress
- Strip the mattress of all bedding. Place all bedding, blankets, duvets, mattress covers, and pillows directly into a sealed trash bag. Transfer these in the trash bag directly to your washing machine. Wash and dry them on the hot setting for at least 30 minutes. Note that the time in the dryer is what kills the bed bugs, not necessarily the water from the washing machine.
- Use a stiff brush or dense comb to scrub bed bugs and their eggs off of your mattress and furniture.
- Move your bed away from the wall or windows and set bedbug traps at each leg.
- Dismantle your bed frame and inspect it closely. Put it outside in the sun for several days to kill the bed bugs in the heat.
- Once you’ve cleaned your mattress, encase it in a bed bug-prevention case for at least a year without opening to ensure any remaining bed bugs inside die. These are different from mattress covers, which are sheets that fit snugly over a mattress like a fitted sheet. Bed-bug-proof encasements are plastic sacks with tight zippers that completely enclose your mattress, and are thick enough to prevent any remaining bed bugs from biting you.
Removing bed bugs from other items
- Place all fabric items, including clothing, bedding, curtains, blankets or towels directly into a sealed trash bag. Wash them on the hot setting and dry them for at least 30 minutes – also on a heated setting. Note that the time in the dryer is what kills the bed bugs, not necessarily the water from the washing machine. Also wash pillows and pet bedding if possible.
- Use a stiff brush or dense comb to scrub bed bugs and their eggs off of your furniture.
- Take the drawers out of your desks and dressers. Tip these over to inspect them and put them outside in the sun to kill the bugs from the heat.
- If there is something you want to keep but can’t treat, keep it i a sealed plastic bag for at least a year.
- When you’re removing items from the bedroom, be careful not to help the bed bugs spread into other rooms in your house. Put everything in a sealed plastic bag and keep it sealed until you reach where you are going (the laundry room, outdoors, trash dumpster, etc.).
- Clean up any clutter (even if it’s not fabric) – like cardboard boxes, magazines, or piles of clothing on the floor. Make sure to remove and treat anything you have under your bed.
- After you’ve removed all items from the room, vacuum everything you can, including the mattress, carpet, rugs and mats, and upholstery! Use the hose extension to get into smaller spots. Then empty the vacuum completely into a – you guessed it – sealed plastic bag. Vacuuming helps trap current bed bugs and their eggs. You can go a step further with a carpet steam treatment as well.
- If you have wallpaper peeling off the wall or any holes in your walls, seal or caulk accordingly to prevent future infestations from harboring there.
Throwing away bed bug-infested items
Having bed bugs does not mean you have to throw out all your belongings. Follow the tips above to remove bed bugs from your house and salvage your belongings. However, if you decide to throw anything out because it’s beyond saving (such as a mattress deeply stained with bed bug feces or blood) or because you are grossed out, here’s how to do so responsibly.
- Enclose all throwaway items in a sealed plastic bag if possible and mark the bag in sharpie or spray paint to indicate that it’s infested. This prevents dumpster divers from unwittingly taking home infested items.
- If the bed bugs infested your furniture and you can’t treat it, arrange for a professional pickup instead of leaving it out on the street. You don’t want someone else to pick it up and bring the bugs into their home. Contact junk removal, your local trash company, or a mattress recycling company to dispose of them responsibly.
Kill bed bugs by exposing them to hot or cold temperatures
You may have guessed from the multiple wash-and-dry instructions above, but extreme temperatures will kill bed bugs. Their ideal temperature is 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Exposing them to extreme heat or cold isn’t a guarantee to get rid of all the bed bugs, but it’s a good first defense and will minimize the amount of pesticides you’ll have to use in the next step.
- For any washable items, put them in the washing machine on the hot setting and dry them for at least 30 minutes in the dryer, also with the heat on.
- For any items you can’t wash (such as shoes, pet toys, bags, pillows, or stuffed animals), put them in a sealed plastic bag and leave them in your car in the sun for several days if you live somewhere where outside temperatures reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit or above. The car will act like an oven and kill the bed bugs. Alternately, place smaller items in a freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit and leave them in there at least overnight or for several days.
Kill bed bugs with pesticides
Fair warning: when misused, pesticides can be dangerous and harmful to your health. In fact, the National Pesticide Information Center specifically recommends against using pesticides to treat bed bugs because they are resistant to so many, even bug bombs. A safer option is to contact a bed bug removal professional or stick to the above tips.
If you choose to use pesticides on your own, please follow these safety guidelines:
- Choose an EPA-approved pesticide specifically for bed bugs. It will mention bed bugs on the label. Otherwise, it may prove ineffective.
- Do not combine or mix the pesticide with any other pesticide or chemical. This is extremely dangerous and may also prove ineffective.
- Read all of the instructions before you use the pesticide.
- Protect yourself by wearing gloves or a mask when using the pesticide and leave the room afterward as the instructions suggest.
What kinds of pesticides are available to kill bed bugs?
Pyrethrins and pyrethroids are the most popular bed bug control product, available in spray or fogger form. Their synthetic chemical ingredients are lethal to bedbugs and attract them to leave their hiding places.
Desiccants (a fancy word for drying agents) are also very effective at killing bed bugs, but often take several months to kill them all. Desiccants kill the bed bugs by destroying their protective outer coating, which, once it is destroyed, exposes the bed bugs to dehydration and eventual death. Because they physically destroy a part of the bed bug’s body, bed bugs cannot become resistant to desiccants – this is what makes them so effective. Again, be careful with using desiccants on your own, and choose ones that list pesticides on the label. Desiccants can be dangerous when inhaled.
Other bed bug control products include:
- Cold pressed neem oil is the only approved biochemical pesticide for bed bug control.
- Chlorfenapyr is the only pyrrole pesticide approved for bed bug control. It works by disrupting key functions in the bed bug that cause it to die.
- Synthetic forms of nicotine like neonicotinoids induce nerve failure in the bed bugs. Like desiccants, neonicotinoids are effective against resistant strains of bed bugs because they cause physical damage to the bed bug.
- Insect growth regulators disrupt the bed bug by thwarting growth into adulthood or causing them to develop too quickly.
Professional bed bug removal
If you’ve already tried the DIY options to no avail, or you simply don’t want to deal with treating them yourself, it’s time to call a professional. Professional bed bug exterminators can remove bed bugs for good, saving you a lot of time, hassle, and general ickiness. They are trained in permanent bed bug removal and have special equipment to get the job done. If you are in an apartment, you may be required to use a professional because the bed bugs can travel to other units in your building.
If a bed bug infestation is especially severe, the last resort is fumigation. Chemical fumigation raises the heat to temperatures as high as 135 or 140 degrees, well above the 117 degrees most bed bugs can survive in.
Bed bug FAQ
How do bed bugs come in your home?
Bed bugs are master hiders, in part because they are so small. Their flat bodies let them crawl into small crevices the width of a credit card. The most common way people get bed bugs is during travel. Bed bugs can hide in suitcases, bags, cars, or other fabrics to travel from an infested home or hotel into your home.
How do you treat bed bug bites?
Bed bug bites do not require treatment unless you have a severe allergic reaction and experience difficulty breathing, swollen tongue, fever, or irregular heartbeat.
Fortunately, most people don’t experience anything more than a mild itch, which can be managed with anti-itch creams, antihistamines, calamine lotion, or oatmeal baths.
How long does it take for bed bugs to die?
Bed bugs can live for several months up to a year without a meal (estimates vary). Placing the bed bug in a dryer for 30 minutes will kill them, as will professional services or fumigation.
On average, it takes almost twice a long to remove bed bugs with insecticides than heat treatment methods. According to a 2015 survey by Bugs Without Borders, pest control specialists visit a home on average 2.6 times when insecticides versus only 1.3 times for heat.
How much does it cost to professionally remove bed bugs?
According to Thumbtack, professional bed bug removal can cost between $170 and $550, averaging around $300. Professionals will come into your home, fully treat all infested areas, and return for a followup appointment.
Bed bug traps and control kits can range from $20 to $90.
What’s the best way to get rid of bed bugs forever?
There is no way to permanently rid your house of bed bugs, as they can always return. The closest to permanent treatment is practicing bed bug prevention using the tips above.
What kills bed bugs instantly?
Rubbing alcohol can kill bed bugs on the spot. Dip a q-tip in rubbing alcohol and douse the bed bug in it.
What is a bed bug’s life cycle?
A bed bug’s life cycle includes 5 nymph stages and 1 adult stage. In ideal environments, bed bugs live around 9 months. Bed bugs can reproduce up to 3 generations per year if allowed to live through their full life cycle. Female bed bugs lay hundreds of eggs over their lifetime, which hatch 6 to 10 days later.
Is there a spray for bed bugs?
Yes, pyrethrins and pyrethroids are one of the most commonly used insecticides for treating bed bugs. They come in a spray or fogger form and kill bed bugs quickly. If you’ve encountered a resistant bed bug population, opt for a combination product that uses multiple pyrethroid or pyrethrin ingredients.
Are bed bugs dangerous?
With the rare exception of having a severe allergic reaction, bed bugs are not dangerous to the vast majority of people. However, everyone agrees they are a major nuisance and simply disgusting. Their bites cause physical discomfort, but they do not transmit disease.
Do bed bugs bite dogs?
No, bed bugs feed exclusively on humans. They may use dogs, cats, and other pets to travel, but they only bite humans.
Do bed bugs get in your hair?
Very rarely. Unlike lice, bed bugs are not equipped to easily crawl through hair. They tend to stick to exposed areas of skin, where they can hop on for a few minutes to feed before returning to their sleeping place on the bed.
Do bed bugs fly or jump?
While they have tiny wings, bed bugs do not fly or jump. However, they can crawl up to 100 feet in a day, and travel even more if they jump onto a carrier such as a pet, or travel home with you from a hotel in your suitcase or from school in your backpack.
Should someone with bed bugs go to work?
Bed bugs can hitchhike from your home to the office via your person, so the considerate thing to do is to avoid going into work and causing another infestation there (unless you particularly dislike your coworkers). Perhaps this is the one silver lining to a bed bug infestation – it can get you a few days off work or a chance to work remotely.
- WebMd guide provides an overview of bedbugs and how to identify and treat bites.
- The CDC answers common FAQs and explains the life cycles of bed bugs on their website.
- The University of Minnesota’s Department of Entomology has a wealth of information on bed bugs, ranging from diagnostic guides, general information, and resources for renters, travelers, homeowners, and property owners and managers.
- If you have questions about the effectiveness or safety of a pesticide, call the National Pesticide Information Center at (800) 858-7378.
- Use the EPA’s Bed Bug Product Search Tool to search more than 300 approved pesticides and find the best product depending on the item you are treating, manufacturer, and active ingredient.
- The EPA also offers a guide for school administrators to prevent bed bugs going or coming with students.
- Cornell University put together a guide for administrators of homeless shelters and group living environments to protect their residents from bed bug infestations.
- Useful for travelers and reners, The Bedbug Registry is a free database of bedbug sightings in the U.S. and Canada. Consumers report whether they’ve encountered bedbugs at hotels and apartment buildings.
- Bedbugger.com provides comprehensive information for identifying bedbugs, prevention and removal guides for different demographics, and an online forum.
- Do-It-Yourself Pest Control offers instructions for using bed bug kits, insecticides, and other products to rid your home of an infestation. They also sell many of the products from their website.