Like most fashion trends, interesting music, and fads, it takes a while for the Next Big Thing to reach the Midwest. Apparently, fucking bed bugs are no exception.
Picture it: Indianapolis, 2014. A middle-aged woman is trying to lurk on a particularly interesting conversation on the Internets, when a small bug darts across her hand. Puzzled, she takes a closer look. Small, red, heart-shaped body. Six legs. The reptilian part of her brain cycles through the list of known bug foes. Spider? Not enough legs. Tick? Nope. Flea? Too big. Roach? Thank god no. Could it be a bed bug? No, surely not, the middle-aged woman never goes anywhere.
Roughly six weeks ago, I developed the worst psoriasis outbreak I’ve ever had. Normally limited to my scalp and some places that don’t show, I’m covered from neck to toes in plaques. This should have been my first clue. Stress can also cause a flare-up, and I always have stress, so I assumed stress was the culprit. As it happens, bug bites can also trigger a psoriasis outbreak. Even after I saw the first bug, I didn’t put it together.
One Internet search later, I’d convinced myself the bug was a spider beetle.. Crisis averted. Spider beetles are harmless. But then I saw another one. I vacuumed everything, and went about my life.
I stripped the bed to wash the bedding, and noticed some odd, dark stains on the edge of the mattress, in three or four clusters, around the seams.
Oh. Oh, no.
Then I saw two tiny bugs scurry out from the zipper pull.
The Internet confirmed, these were no spider beetles. These were bed bugs. Fret not, dear reader. Because it’s totally possible to get rid of them. If this is you, grab a coffee and settle in. We’re going to fix it together.
What Do We Say To the God of Bed Bugs? Not Today.
1. Panic. It’s okay, let it all out. There are motherfucking bugs in your bed, and they eat human blood. At the very least, this is unsettling. Get all the panic out now, because there’s no time for panic in war. Come back to this post in 24 hours, when the initial feeling of your skin crawling right off your body and into a clean hermetic chamber has worn off.
2. Know your enemy. Are you in a good place, bed bug infestee? Good. Bed bugs are annoying, they are creepy, and they can make you itch like a motherfucker, but they are essentially harmless. While they can carry human pathogens, they don’t transmit them. Unlike another blood-sucker, the mosquito, bed bugs have no recorded incidents of transferring a human disease between people. They don’t typically bother pets; they prefer sweet, bitter, human blood, so Fluffy and Noodles are safe, although they may be acting as furry public transportation. That’s the good news.
3. Your enemy is persistent. Getting rid of them is going to be hard, and it’s not going to be any fun at all. It’s worth it, because the more thorough you are in your initial assault, the easier it’s going to be to get it under control quickly. Not instantly. Here’s why. Unless you manage to catch the very first bug that makes its way into your home, you’re going to be dealing with three stages of bed bug life. Adults, larvae, and eggs. A vacuum cleaner will suck an adult and older larvae to a spinny death, but bed bug eggs are too small, and are typically laid in places too small for even your tiniest attachment to reach, like behind baseboards, in electrical outlets, in the deepest parts of your mattress, and in the cracks and crevices of your furniture. After a female bed bug drinks your sweet, sweet life juice, she can lay a horrifyingly large number of eggs. Even if you are Martha Stewart, you’re probably going to miss a few egg hiding spots on your first try. Those eggs will hatch, and you’ll have to act fast to kill the little fuckers before they can eat and breed, or cut them off at the pass.
4. Save the bed. Your first priority is creating a safe place to sleep, without countless critters trying to turn you into a midnight buffet. This takes a few steps.
A. Clean. Vacuum every inch of the mattress and box springs, then vacuum the entire bedroom floor.
B. Inspect. Look for the two tell-tale clues (aside from the bugs themselves) you’ve got a problem: Blood spots on your sheets, pillows, or mattress, and dark spots that look like mold. The blood is yours, the dark spots aren’t mold, they’re bed bug feces.
C. Panic again. Yeah, it’s bug shit. This time, you get twenty minutes. While you’re panicking, drop your bedding in the washer on hot. When it’s done, dry it on the hottest setting for at least half an hour. Do the same thing to everything in your room that can be washed, including your clean clothes, and all that crap in your closet. I know, I’m sorry. Anything that can’t be washed, but can still tolerate heat, like your pillows, stuffed animals, etc., need to go in the dryer, on high, for 30 minutes.
D. Inspect closer. Use a credit card or plastic ID to scrape along the seams and zippers on your mattress, especially in the areas close to the shit spots. Have the vacuum ready to suck up any friends that pop their tiny usurper heads out.
E. Treat any feces spots with an enzyme cleaner you’d use to clean up pet or human messes. The bugs use the smell of their own shit to find dinner, so we need to throw them off the trail. If you don’t have an enzyme cleaner, you can use a mix of Borax and water, or baking soda and water, to clean the spots.
F. Repeat. Like ten times. Then take your bed frame apart and clean each piece thoroughly, even the fasteners. Then vacuum it all again.
G. Wrap that rascal, by which I mean your mattress. Once you’re relatively confident you’ve sucked all the crawly bugs out of your mattress, head online to purchase a mattress and box spring cover meant for bed bug infestations. Priced between $30-$60, these covers are made of plastic and have special, secure zippers that protect you from any bugs, hatched or not, that might still be living in there. Important: This cover must stay in place for at least a year, because that’s how long these little shits can go between meals and live. Humans really are little more than water balloons compared to some of Earth’s other species, aren’t we?
H. Move the bed. Pull your bed away from any walls it might be butted up against. Pull any nightstands or other furniture as far away from the side of the bed as the room/space allows.
I. Lift the bed. Now you want to create a barrier under each leg of your bed that will prevent any errant bugs from scaling their way to your meat sticks. You can buy traps that fit under each leg, that allow bugs to crawl in, but not back out or up the leg of the bed. They’re bumpy, for good traction, on the outside and extra smooth on the inside, so the bugs slide right back down. With a little creativity, you could improvise a solution out of pet bowls and Tupperware that do the same thing. Some folks recommend putting sticky traps under the legs of your bed, but if you have pets, or hair, or carpet, or dust, or live as a human, I would imagine that trap would be both filthy and inadequate fairly quickly, while being a giant pain in the ass to remove. Skip it, unless you’ve managed to remove lint from your life completely.
J. Get the first good night’s sleep since you found out you had bed bugs.
5. Attack the rest of the room. Remove all the clutter to another room, after wiping it down and inspecting it closely. Don’t bring it, or your clean clothes, back in the room until you know you’ve won the war. Wipe down everything. Remove drawers and wipe the underside. Use your credit card/ID to poke at any loose baseboards, window frames, to make sure no one is hiding, like a tiny little coward. Go around outlets and light switches, as well. If you can’t wipe it, or vacuum it, or launder it, and it won’t melt, aim a blow dryer set on high at it for at least 30 seconds. If you can’t do that to it, and you can freeze it; stick it in a plastic bag and pop it in the freezer for 4-5 days. Vacuum again, because why not, you’ve already done it a billion times, and it should be super easy now, with all of your crap out of the room.
6. Caulk. Re-caulk all baseboards, windows, frames, trim, and outlets. Caulk like you’ve never caulked before.
7. Wait and watch. I know, you’ve completely exhausted yourself fighting these motherfucking bugs in your motherfucking bed. If they aren’t gone now, you are completely justified in wanting to try a more drastic solution, like bats, or a flame thrower. I feel your feels, dear reader, but remain vigilant. If you spot any signs; blood spots, feces clusters, or actual bugs, start over again. If you still can’t win, and there’s a chance you won’t, go to step 8.
8. The professionals. Find a reputable pest control company in your area who is familiar with and has experience getting rid of bed bugs. Bed bugs, in case you didn’t already love them enough, are immune to most pesticides. The most effective way to treat them is with extreme heat or cold, and a pest control company with the right bonafides is going to have some powerful tools. Powerful, expensive tools. (Complete removal can cost between $2k and $10k, depending on your area, the severity of the infestation, and how many treatments your home requires.)
What Not to Do
Don’t throw out your furniture unless you know for sure it won’t be picked up by someone else not really looking for a bed bug infestation. Wrap it up and wait it out. Your couch may look ugly in a plastic slipcover, but you’ll be doing your part for the war effort.
Don’t think it has anything to do with how clean or not clean your home is. Anyone can get bed bugs. Keeping things sparse can prevent them from finding new hiding spots, but you didn’t get bed bugs because of your housekeeping skills. I promise.
Don’t use pesticides. They don’t work, and they’re more likely to make you, your family, and your pets sick than they have of killing off your bugs.
Don’t believe bullshit you read on the Internet. Rubbing alcohol doesn’t do anything long-term, even if it kills a bug on contact. Same with most household cleaners, like bleach. Go to a reputable site for advice, like a cooperative extension, our friends at Unfuck Your Habitat, a university, or this handy PDF from NYC, who knows how to fight some fucking bed bugs.
Don’t give up. I know it’s overwhelming. I know it’s exhausting. I’m still fighting my war, and I know I’m a ways from the finish line. You can do this if I can do this, and one day we will once again be able to live in a home with only those creatures we choose.
And the dust mites.
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