Waking up to the sight of welts on your legs is enough to send you into a panic: It could mean you’ve got bed bugs, those elusive parasitic critters that emerge at night to feed on human blood. You may have picked them up at a hotel, or even a movie theatre or restaurant—they can hide pretty much anywhere. But you just want the buggers out of your home, ASAFP.
Here’s what you need to do: Take a deep breath. Then follow the steps below to figure out if bed bugs really are the problem, and if so, how to send them packing.
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How to know if you have bed bugs
Itchy, red bumps on your arms or legs are often the first sign of these creepy-crawlies. Even if your partner appears unscathed, you could still have a bed bug infestation: “Some people have no reaction at all [to the bites], others react strongly,” says Jim Fredericks, PhD, chief entomologist for the National Pest Management Association (NPMA).
Take a look for evidence that the creatures have taken up residence. Look for red or reddish-brown fecal spots on your mattress or walls (we know, sorry), white eggs or empty eggshells, and bed bug skins. You might even spot one of the insects, since they are big enough to see. “Adults are flat, reddish-brown, about one-quarter inch in length, and have no wings,” says Fredericks. Picture little apple seeds with legs.
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Treat your bed bug bites
When you discover bed bug bites, the first step is to wash them with soap and water to prevent infection. The recommends applying an over-the-counter corticosteroid cream if the bites are very itchy. Then it’s a waiting game for one to two weeks, while your skin heals. See a dermatologist if the bites ooze (a sign of infection), or you develop blisters, swelling, or hives.
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Call a bed bug exterminator
Getting rid of bed bugs is not a DIY project. Research published in the found that products known as “foggers” do little to help, because they don’t reach the critters’ hiding spots; and the insects are often resistant to the chemicals they use. “I know people who claimed that they bought over-the-counter bed bug products, and spent over $3,000 in six months,” says entomologist Angela Tucker, PhD, manager of technical services at Terminix.
Wasting time with ineffective foggers may just prolong the stress of a bed bug infestation. And calling in a pro could cost less in the long run. Plus, many companies offer free inspections—a simple way to confirm your suspicions. Exterminators know exactly where to look and what they’re looking for. You can find licensed pest control professionals in your area through the site.
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Get help even if you only see a few bed bugs
Here’s the thing about bed bugs: A small population can explode in no time. “An infestation of five bed bugs may not seem like as big of a deal as hundreds or thousands, but they can reproduce fairly quickly,” says Fredericks. Consider this crazy fact: An adult female bed bug needs to mate just once in order to produce eggs for the rest of her life. She can lay one to five eggs per day, says Fredericks, and it takes only three to four weeks for those eggs to grow into adults.
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You don’t need the dogs
While bed bug-sniffing pooches are expertly trained (and adorable), it probably doesn't make sense to have one come to your home, says Tucker, especially if you already know that you have bed bugs. Canines are often used to hunt for the insects in larger, commercial properties (like hotels and theaters). If an exterminator suggests bringing a dog, verify that the dog’s skills have been certified by a third-party organization, such as the .
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Consider where you might have picked up bed bugs
Maybe you recently took a work trip and stayed in a hotel. Or your daughter is just home from college, and may have brought some uninvited guests from her dorm. Sometimes it’s easy to identify a likely source, says Tucker. Tell the company you’re working with about your suspicions. That info can help them identify whether bed bugs are your problem.
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Wash your bedding
Strip your bed and throw everything in the machine (pillows, too)—on hot. You may also want to wash all of your clothing as well.
Bed bugs and their eggs can’t survive high temps, so washing in hot water and then drying on high heat will remove them, says Fredericks. Make sure you seal your laundry bags before you leave your bedroom, to avoid transporting the bugs to other areas of your home, because that is so not what you need right now. (The University of Minnesota offers some more .)
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Clear out clutter
Needless to say, if the pest company gives you to-dos before their visit, do them. You may be totally freaked out (there’s no question a bed bug infestation can be an emotional experience), but there are ways you can help get the situation under control. For example, clearing out clutter may make it easier for the pest professionals to treat your room, says Fredericks. The company may even request that you move furniture away from walls.
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Don’t throw away your mattress
Your instinct might be to just get rid of your mattress and start fresh. But that’s actually not what experts recommend. “To many people’s surprise, best management practices discourage the disposal of items infected with bed bugs, as this may spread bed bugs to new locations,” says Fredericks. After a professional treats your bedroom, you can purchase bed-bug resistant encasements for your box spring and mattress (we like ).
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But consider tossing that old chair
A pest company probably won’t tell you definitively whether or not you need to get rid of a piece of furniture. “It’s very difficult to know 100% where bed bugs came from, and if throwing away the item … will solve your problems,” says Tucker. But in some cases, it’s not a bad idea: “Occasionally, an item is in a condition where treating for bed bugs is not going to help at all,” says Tucker. For example, if you have a mattress with a hole in it, or a tattered chair, it’s more likely that a few insects could survive in the crevices. The pest company can help you remove the item safely.
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Make a plan
Once you’ve called a pest company, you shouldn’t have to wait long to get your home treated. “Companies usually bump up these appointments on their priority list,” says Fredericks. In the meantime though, if you’re having trouble sleeping, you may want to stay with a friend or family member. If that’s the case, you must high-heat dry any clothes that you’re going to take with you, to ensure you’re not packing any stowaways.
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Find out what the company plans to do
Ask about the methods the pest professionals will use in your home. “It really depends on the level of infestation, and the company protocols,” says Tucker. The important thing is that the company uses more than one method, she says, in an integrative approach. For example, insecticide spray can be effective—but because bedbugs can be resistant to some chemicals, there’s no guarantee the spray alone will work.
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Use non-chemical methods
First step, get the bulk of the bed bugs out. That’s why the company will probably come with vacuums to suck up adults and their eggs, and physically get them off your property. You can already start breathing a sigh of relief. Other non-chemicals methods might include rapid-freezing, steaming, and heating the room above 122 degrees. That temperature is lethal to all stages of bed bugs, says Fredericks.
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And insecticides too
Insecticides are just as important to treat an infestation. A professional may come in and spray in targeted areas. They may also use a dust for cracks or crevices where bedbugs may be resting, or traveling from one area to another. Because these products aren’t safe for people or pets to breathe, you may have to leave your home for an afternoon while they dry, says Tucker. The company you’re working with will provide guidelines to follow.
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Get a repeat visit
After you have bed bugs, you want to be 100% sure they’ve heeded their eviction notice. During the first visit from the pest control company, the goal is to remove and kill as much of the colony as possible, says Tucker. “That way, you get an immediate improvement,” she says. But most bed bug infestations require at least two visits, she says. (She has seen an infestation of thousands require multiple visits.)
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Ask the tough questions
If you’ve had a couple of treatments and you’re still waking up with welts, consider whether someone else—like regular house guests, or a babysitter—could be toting the tiny insects in. “If someone may be bringing bed bugs to you, you may want to ask ‘Hey, do you have bed bugs?’” Not an easy subject to broach, to say the least. But hey, you need answers. As Tucker points out, “Bed bugs are excellent hitchhikers."