Getting Rid Of Bed Bugs (They Suck! Literally)

I owe you fair warning that this post might give you the willies. It’s a horror story from my renter days that I wanted to share in hopes that it may help someone experiencing something similar.

When I made my post-graduation move to New York City in June 2004, I rented a two-bedroom apartment in Astoria, Queens with a college roommate. It was less than nice, but my roomie and I were just happy to find a place with big bedrooms with cheap rent. All in all, it seemed like the perfect place to cram with my seen-better-days IKEA furniture, “decorate” with cheap posters and kick off life as an adult. Little did I know I’d actually end up living like this:

dscn0909

But let’s start at the beginning. I randomly woke up in the middle of one August night and headed to the kitchen for some water. I turned on the light and immediately noticed a small, brown bug sitting on my shoulder. As I turned my head to flick it away I saw several more crawling down my back. Naturally, I got some major heebie-jeebies and ripped my shirt off so fast you would’ve thought it was on fire.

I darted back to my room, figuring I’d accidentally left my window cracked and let some flies or gnats creep in. When I turned on the light I saw two things: (1) closed windows and (2) several dozen bugs swarming my bed and the surrounding walls. Gross, gross, gross.

I started to kill the ones I could catch, but quickly realized they were appearing faster than I could squash them. I turned to my next best defense: the Internet. Some quick Googling revealed that I had a bed bug infestation (I know what you’re thinking – ewwww)

Bed bugs are very real. They’re small (pencil eraser sized) flat insects that are nocturnal and feed on warm-blooded creatures, which certainly explains their love of sleeping humans. It’s rare that you catch them in action like I did, so most people detect an infestation from the bites they find on their skin. Both my roommate and I had lots of those (she even had one on her eyelid) but made the common mistake of assuming they were just mosquito bites. You can also look for stains on your bedding: both their droppings (small black dots usually at the edges of your mattress) and blood stains (when you roll over and “pop” one that just drank). Gross, I know.

So how did we get bed bugs? They’ve been making a resurgence in the US lately, especially in big, transient cities like New York. Despite popular belief, an infestation isn’t an indication of  filth, but rather a a result of increased international travel (frequently found in hotels, bed bugs come home on your suitcases and clothes) and decreased use of DDT in pesticides (assuming they were mostly gone, people stopped making chemicals to kill them). How they made it to our apartment? No one really knows- except that our wall-to-wall carpet surely didn’t help.

Unfortunately, bed bugs are notoriously hard to get rid of. We were told it often requires multiple applications of a pesticide to ensure the problem is gone. Our (somewhat shady) landlord was too cheap to call a professional, so he hired a friend to spray our place with some mystery chemical in all the cracks and crevices around our apartment (this involved dismantling all of our IKEA furniture- bed bugs love dowel holes!).

In addition to the pesticide treatment (which I will admit wasn’t very green at all- but we were getting eaten by bugs at night and our landlord wore the pants), my roommate and I had to take several steps to help ensure that we quarantined any of the bugs that miraculously escaped the chemical treatment. This involved washing all fabrics in hot water (keep in mind this meant lugging ALL of our clothes, sheets, and towels two blocks to a laundromat) and then storing them in plastic for 2 months. Bed bugs apparently have trouble walking on slick surfaces like plastic or metal, so keeping everything in trash bags helped keep them from stowing away anywhere new. So that’s why my closet looked like this for 8 weeks:

dscn0909

And since the bugs could still be living deep inside our mattresses, we were advised to buy plastic mattress covers (with zippers!) and leave them on until we could afford new beds.  And since checking for bite marks in the morning was the the only way to tell if the problem was solved, we had several unsettling nights where we basically “sacrificed” our bodies to be sucked on for the sake of seeing if they were gone. Here’s a pic of me before bed one night on my sheet-less, plastic-covered bed. Despite it being summer, I covered myself in as much clothing as possible to limit my bite count. Oh, and that annoyed look is 100% intentional too.

dscn0914

After a couple of weeks of biteless nights, we officially declared ourselves in the clear. In the end, it had been about a 12 week ordeal. I’m usually not one to freak out about bugs, but these suckers (literally) caused an insane amount of distress – from arguing with our landlord over who was responsible for treatment to eventually replacing every piece of furniture I owned (not ’til I moved out, mind you). I truly wouldn’t wish bed bugs on anyone.

But bed bugs aren’t the end of the world. If you find yourself infested, do your research, rely on professionals and brace yourself for a few weeks of  uncomfortable living. Hopefully in the 4+ years since my ordeal their treatment methods have improved. The best treatment for bed bugs is obviously prevention. When traveling, check hotel mattresses for stains and keep your suitcase off the floor. At home, keep your carpets vacuumed and if you think you’re at risk for an infestation (lots of globetrotting guests, for instance) think about coating the feet of your bed in Vaseline or sitting them in a tin can so the bugs can’t travel from the floor to the mattress (bed bugs can’t fly, so as long as things are slippery they won’t be able to bridge that gap).

Hopefully this long post hasn’t put you to sleep. But if it did, I’ll hope you slept tight and didn’t let the… well, you know the rest.

Learn more about bed bugs here and here.

Comments

  1. says

    And here I was thinking “I’ll just read this one YHL post, then I’m going to go to bed. Mmm, bed.”

    Not so sure about that now…

  2. Sarah says

    so gross- our dogs brought in fleas once and that was bad enough. i’m itching all over right now! i usually do spot checks once in while on our mattress and walls for bed bugs though- even though our mattress is pretty new, it never hurts to be careful!

  3. says

    OH, itch-itch, scratch-scratch!! Nasty looking little critters.

    John and Sherry, could a fabulous “flea” market or thrift store piece of furniture possibly harbor bed bugs? I bet John is super careful when you’re shopping secondhand stores. Please share some inspection tips. Will a fresh coat of white paint kill bed bugs (seriously)?

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Hey Denise T,

      Bed bugs usually like soft cozy places that they can burrow (like a mattress) so a wood table or chair is a pretty unlikely place for them to take up residence. Since they’re the size of a pencil eraser, they’re not invisible, so you should be able to see them on anything made of wood, glass or metal so there’s no need to paint anything to “seal” it.

      We try not to bug out (pun intended) over upholstered thrift store items like chairs and stools either. You’re not likely to find them in non-bedding related materials, but you might want to check the cracks and crevices for signs of droppings just to be safe. And if you bring home something that you plan to recover, it’s not a bad idea to put it in the garage and hope that the temperature drops overnight since bedbugs can’t stand the cold- then bring the piece inside in the morning It’s a good way to ensure that the item you’ll be recovering is bug free. Bed bugs are really more of a problem in major cities and among people who share walls (like townhouses, apartments, and hotels) so we’re always cautious but not overly paranoid. At least I’m not. John’s still a little scarred from the experience.

      xo,
      Sherry (& John)

  4. says

    Ew ew ew. I had bedbugs at home after my freshman or sophomore year at college, over winter break. Not a bad infestation, after about three bites on my belly I found one of the nasty buggers and freaked out. It wasn’t that awful to fix–I found a non-rustley plastic thing to put on my bed, quarantined everything in the room, etc–but we never figured out where they came from. I checked my dorm room, m friends’ dorm rooms, the rest of the house…and found nothing. I hadn’t been on any trips, either. It’s like they manifested out of thin air.

  5. mallory says

    Icky! I saw a 20/20 thing about these once. They went around from hotel to hotel turning up mattresses and questioning the hotel managers. They were even finding them in some of the upscale hotels in NY.

  6. says

    OMG Great post… WOW… i’m officially freaked out. Me and my friends got scabies in college and I thought that was gross… this may be grosser. Although, scabies makes you itch because bugs are defecating under your skin… hmmmm.

  7. says

    I feel better now, concerning the “flea” market stuff. Okay, how did that name originate? Any trivia experts?

    I once had a neighbor who worked in the hospitality business. She would not spend the night away from home without taking some kind of plastic cover for the hotel mattress, her own mattress pad, sheets, pillows, pillowcases…the works. I thought she was a bit paranoid – but after John’s post, maybe not!

    By the way, I sent youngsters a fun picture of an old metal bed that’s hopefully bed bug free.

  8. says

    This post makes me itch. And, I can totally relate. I lived in a fairly nice apartment complex in Boston for a couple years and my roommate and I had an infestation. We have no idea where they came from, but it took two rounds of intense chemical treatment before they were gone. So gross.

  9. Attibelle says

    They are still alive and kicking…bed bugs that is! My sister just suffered an infestation at her college dorms less than a year ago. After much deliberation the college got rid of a floors worth of mattresses, moved everyone up a floor and promised to pay for the dry cleaning of all of the co-eds clothing! Gross!

  10. Alison says

    oh man. I had bedbugs in my dorm room last year and it wasn’t until the VERY last few weeks of school that I finally caught one. Needless to say I am traumatized and it is STILL hard for me to sleep without worrying that I’ll wake up with a bite in the morning (even though I am in a different dorm). These little buggers are terrible. I just read on Gothamist that they have developed some genetic mutation that is making them impervious to chemical treatment. ahh!

  11. Beth says

    I had bedbugs last year, and was horrified to learn how hard they are to kill. (From the description of your landlord’s job, I’ll bet you anything there are still bedbugs at your old apartment. They can live for a year without food: the pesticides probably just made them retreat into the walls.) I was lucky that when I got them, it was the middle of summer in Arizona, and they die at about 115 degrees, so I was able to heat-treat anything I could cram into my car. A cross-country move didn’t hurt either. I used one of those PODS to move, and left it sit out in the sun for a week to make sure nothing could follow me to my new place. What a nightmare. I can’t set my bags down in a hotel anymore til I’ve checked the sheets.

  12. says

    John, if this post doesn’t jump start a spring cleaning frenzy at my house – nothing will ;-)

    Okay, I’m officially getting started today. If I find myself slacking off, I’m going to reread this post and all the comments to keep me motivated.

  13. Amy A. says

    I’m allergic to dust mites and bought a decent quality mattress cover (mail order via Costco) and I’m wondering if that would help to seal off the mattress to the suckers. Have you heard of anything like that?

    I haven’t had a problem but you never know…and I can’t stand any kind of bug!