Ah, bed bugs… The household pest that no one wants to think about but homeowners need to know about if they want to sleep comfortably every night.
Winter is a time to snuggle up at home—that is, unless said home is infested with the most dreaded and unwelcome houseguests this side of in-laws and former college roommates: bed bugs. The very word sends chills up and down our collective nervous systems, and these critters are on the rise in many parts of the U.S.
Still reading? Good! Here’s a guide to everything you need to know about these creepiest of creepy crawlies. You may thank us one day.
What do bed bugs look like?
They look like apple seeds—nasty, ambulatory apple seeds—ranging in size from 1 to 7 millimeters. That’s why they’re so hard to see, especially since they hide deep within the nooks and crannies of mattresses and other furniture, coming out only at night to feast, naturally, on you.
What exactly do they do to us?
After inserting their needle-size beak into your skin, they chug your blood, which makes them double or triple in size. (Really, are you still reading? Great!) Then, like frat boys leaving a kegger, they crawl back to their beds and have intercourse—and yes, this begets more bed bugs. The effects on humans can vary. Some have no reaction while others suffer itchy, red welts in clusters of two or three, called the “breakfast, lunch, and dinner” pattern. The only good news, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is that bed bugs do not spread disease.
How long have bed bugs been around?
They’ve been around, oh, vaguely forever, according to their cameos in the Bible and the Quran. In the 1970s, when U.S. Army entomologist Harold Harlon found the critters biting recruits at Fort Dix, he placed them in jars and, to keep them alive, let them feed on his arms and legs. Even creepier, he still has offspring of these bugs for study today.
How do they get around and, in particular, into my home?
“They don’t fly. They don’t jump. They are master hitchhikers,” says Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist for the National Pest Management Association. They burrow into beds, clothing, luggage, or the crevices of that second-hand sofa you picked up at the flea market last Saturday. Bed bugs have infiltrated posh digs from the Waldorf-Astoria to Bloomingdale’s and while they prefer blood of the human variety, they can feed on any mammal in their midst or hunker down without food for up to a year.
What are signs my home has them?
According to the CDC, if you see any of the following, you may have a bed bug infestation:
• Dark or rusty spots on sheets, mattresses, or your PJs (which is their excrement, we’re sorry to say);
• shed exoskeletons, or eggs, which look like very small grains of rice;
• an odor that’s similar to overripe raspberries;
• and any unexplainable welts that you did not have before you went to bed.
What can I do to keep them out of my home?
Fredericks advises that when you return from a trip, head directly to the washing machine and dump in all your clothes. After they’re washed, dry them at a high heat setting. Anything above 120º will kill them.
Next, inspect your luggage with a flashlight, checking every seam and crevice. If you find a bedbug, get rid of the bag. Store your luggage anywhere except near you.
“The bedroom is the worst place because they will be close to their food source,” Fredericks explains. “If they are up in your attic or garage, it is less likely for them to find their meal.”
If that cute bedside table at the antiques store catches your eye, check it thoroughly before you buy it. The Environmental Protection Agency has a list of tips to protect your home from bed bugs.
What should I do if I have them?
Don’t try to get rid of them yourself—just ask Detroit resident Sherry Young who decided she’d had enough after a year-long infestation. She had heard heat would drive the pests out so in November 2015, she turned on her oven and doused herself and her apartment in rubbing alcohol. Boom! The floors and her boots lit on fire. She and her neighbors made it out alive, but the entire 48-unit apartment complex was destroyed. So were the bed bugs, but this falls squarely into the category of “overkill.”
“Doing it yourself is a terrible strategy,” confirms Fredericks. “The reason for that is that as they spread out, it is no longer a bed problem. It is a bed problem, then a dresser problem, then the walls and behind the wallpaper and pictures and photographs on the wall. Call a pro.” Go to BedBugCentral to find a specialist in your area, or check the EPA website for a comprehensive list of what to do.
Extermination costs will vary, according to Bedbugs.org. You’ll pay $250 to $900 per room while extreme infestations will run around $5,000. Contrary to what you may have been told, you don’t need to throw out your mattress and all your belongings, according to PestCentral.com. For one, these objects can be effectively treated and two, by throwing these things out, you’re just spreading them to more homes, so do yourself and your neighbors a favor: Hold onto your stuff. Clean your stuff. Live your life—without bed bugs!