A surprising number of people think that bedbugs are a mythical insect that live only in the cutesy phrase “don’t let the bedbugs bite.” They are actually a very insidious pest. Brought close to eradication in the U.S. by the now-banned use of the DDT, bedbugs have made a comeback in New York recently, sparking somewhat hysterical press accounts like this one. They can affect everyone: young, old, rich, poor, neat freaks and hopeless slobs.
At their biggest they are a little under a 1/4 inch wide and very flat, but even as recent hatchlings they are easily visible to the naked eye. Bedbugs like to nest in a sleeping area and at night, attracted by the carbon dioxide humans emit when they breathe, they will find that sleeping person and feast on a meal of their blood. If you find yourself scratching constantly bedbugs might be one reason why. If there are little dots of blood on your sheets then you have almost certainly been infested.
If bedbugs ever happen to you, here’s some advice:
1. Acknowledge that you are entering a life emergency. I am not being over-dramatic. Bedbugs are hard to get rid of. They don’t present any health risks but they are very corrosive to your psychology, perhaps because they attack when you're sleeping -- a moment of great value and vulnerability.
2. Go nuclear early. I’m going to outline a strategy for dealing with bedbugs – you might also get ideas from other places. Whatever you do, don’t go for the gradual escalation. Go full-bore early and make sure you get the little beasts out of your life quickly.
3. Don’t put all your trust in the exterminator man because there’s only so much he can do for you. Legal insecticides only have a half-life of about a month; bedbugs can live up to nine months without a blood meal. Even if the exterminator managed to bring every bug in your apartment into contact with the poison, there would still be the eggs waiting to reach maturity. Insecticides are part of the overall solution, but they aren’t a cure-all.
4. Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum. That is the only way to get rid of the eggs. Vacuum high, vacuum low. Vacuum under the baseboards. Vacuum in the cracks around your windows. Take out your clothes and sheets and blankets and shake them all out one by one and then vacuum the cracks in your dresser. Vacuum everything. Then either apply the insecticide yourself or have an exterminator do it. Repeat this process at least once, and more than that if you see it’s not being effective. Oh, and after every vacuuming, discard the vacuum bag.
5. Create a sterile area around your bed. A lot of people advocate throwing away your mattress. Just as good and a lot cheaper is if you buy a mattress liner from an allergy supply store. These liners are meant to block dust mites, which are far smaller than bedbugs. Make sure there are no places for the bugs to nest in your bed. If you have a wooden bed, put rubber compound in any holes or cracks. If you want to make absolutely sure there are no places for bedbugs to nest, buy a brass or an iron bed.
6. Protect that sterile area. Put little tins or aluminum bowls at the base of your bed legs. Fill these with baby oil, which will evaporate a lot more slowly than water. You have now created a double obstacle course for the bedbugs. They can’t climb up slick surfaces like aluminum and they can’t swim. If you want to go all out smear some Vaseline around the bed leg too – bedbugs can’t get through that stuff either. Another wise precaution is if you keep your linens in a sealed plastic container once you get them back from the laundry. (Bedbugs cannot survive a washing cycle.)
7. Don’t tell your family or friends. I’ve heard stories of people being forced by their parents to change and shower before they enter their house. Others have had quarantine areas created for them at work. Of course, this is ridiculous. Bedbugs have been known to stowaway in luggage, but they don’t travel on people… for one thing, they would shake loose. For another you would see them. However, bedbugs are so mysterious and they provoke such irrational reactions that you really should keep your problems to yourself until you have it resolved.
8. Take heart: victory is possible. It takes a concerted effort, but it is within your reach. I say that as someone who has been bedbug-free for more than two years now.