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How to Get Rid of Bed Bugs in a Mattress

Written by Brad Nehring

Bed bugs are one of the most prevalent pests in the world. As noted by PestWorld, bed bug cases have been reported in virtually every region on earth, including all 50 U.S. states. Although their numbers fell into decline during the mid-20th century, a resurgence of bed bug infestations began in the 1980s and has largely continued to this day.

Bed bugs feed almost exclusively on human blood, and – as they name implies – they often inhabit areas where people sleep to ensure a steady food source. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), bed bugs are commonly found on or near the piping, seams, and tags of mattresses and box springs, as well as nooks and crannies of the bed frame and headboard.

Ridding your mattress of bed bugs can be a time-consuming process, but with the proper measures you can not only eradicate existing populations but also prevent new infestations from occurring. In this guide, we’ll lay out the necessary steps for identifying, preventing, controlling, and exterminating bed bug populations.

What Are Bed Bugs?

The bed bug, or Cimex lectularius, is a parasitic insect that belongs to the cimicidae family. Bed bugs are barely visible to the naked eye; most measure about 5mm to 7mm in length. Key identifiers include:

  • A mottled, red-brown color
  • Flat, ovoid shape when unfed; ballooning shape when fed
  • Relatively small wings compared to body size
  • An odor the EPA describes as “musty-sweetish” that comes from glandular secretions

Human blood is the bed bug’s primary food source. They are nocturnal eaters, and will rarely bite humans during the day. While they can survive for more than a year without eating, bed bugs may consume blood daily if it is readily available. In fact, they can consume as much as seven times their own body weight during one feeding session. Pets and animals may carry bed bugs, but they are rarely bitten. Although they usually remain near sleeping human hosts, adult bed bugs will travel up to 100 feet in search of food.

Bed bug bites produce small red lumps, along with a severe itch that may linger for several days. Thankfully, numerous studies have concluded that bed bugs do not transmit any blood-borne pathogens between human hosts, but the bites can still be very uncomfortable.

According to PestWorld’s 2018 ‘Bugs Without Borders‘ survey, pest control specialists are most likely to encounter bed bugs in single-family homes, apartments, and condominiums. Bed bugs are drawn to mattresses, box springs, headboards, and other tight, enclosed spaces, such as closets and cracks in floors and walls. Bed bug infestation typically begins with immature females or adult males that enter a new area in search of food. If human hosts are located, then more bed bugs will follow. This is known as ‘introduction’. Infestation is usually triggered as soon as the bed bugs reproduce and females are able to lay eggs throughout their new home.

How Do I Know if My Mattress Has a Bed Bug Infestation?

Recognizing evidence of bed bug infestation is crucial for controlling and exterminating these resilient pests. According to the EPA, warning signs of an active bed bug presence include:

  • Live bed bugs
  • Red stains or smears, indicating areas where bed bugs have been crushed
  • Unhatched bed bug eggs, which are small pearly white encasements roughly 1mm in length (about the size of a pinhead)
  • Molted skins cast off during the instar stages, which are usually fragmented with a translucent appearance
  • Fecal stains on bed sheets, carpet and other surfaces located near the primary infestation site

Many people use bite marks to identify bed bugs, as well. The bites take the shape or red bumps with a darker red center, and produce a persistent itch that can last for days. However, as noted by the Mayo Clinic, these bites can be difficult to distinguish from other insect bites and rashes. If you suspect a bed bug infestation based on bites alone, survey your sleep area for these other signs listed above.

How Do I Keep Bed Bugs out of My Mattress?

Many preventive techniques can be used to curb the introduction and spread of bed bugs. You can exercise the following precautions to keep bed bugs out of your mattress and box spring, as well as other areas of your house.

  • Encase your mattress and box spring in a zippered protector. An encasement that covers the entire mattress ensures fewer nooks and crannies for the bed bugs hide; a protector that only fits over the top surface of the mattress will not be sufficient. Covers made of translucent material also allow you to spot bed bugs easily. The EPA recommends you purchase a tear-resistant encasement and check it periodically for holes. Protectors may be treated with pesticides, which can provide added bed bug protection – but some people may not feel comfortable encasing their mattress in this type of material.
  • Mend all cracks in the headboard and bed frame. Bed bugs are known to occupy these spaces. As an added precaution, do the same with any cracks and fissures in your bedroom walls or floor. You should also seal your bedroom windows and baseboards, as bed bugs commonly use these points of entry into your home.
  • Regularly wash and dry all sheets, pillowcases and other bed linens. A common misconception is that bed bugs are linked to a lack of hygiene; in fact, this is rarely the root cause for infestation. That said, you can stave off bed bugs by maintaining clean bedding. Wash the items in hot water of at least 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54.4 degrees Celsius), which is considered the lethal temperature for both bed bug adults and eggs. Then, dry the items on high for at least 30 minutes to ensure all of the insects are dead. Take note that cotton and other materials used for bedding may shrink in the laundry under these settings.
  • Tidy up cluttered areas in the bedroom and elsewhere around the house. Piles of unused items can be quite conducive to bed bugs seeking a dark, cavernous place to dwell. If possible, refrain from storing anything under beds in your home.
  • Frequently vacuum your bedroom. Once you’re finished, immediately dispose of the contents in an outside waste container.
  • Check your sleep area on a regular basis. This includes the piping, seams, and tags of your mattress, the crevices of your box spring, and any unmended cracks in your frame and headboard.

Travelers may unwittingly transport bed bugs after returning from a trip. Overnight stays in hotels, motels and other lodgings have also been linked to bed bug introduction. Travelers should carefully check their shoes, luggage and other personal items for bed bug warning signs before bringing them into their home. They should also wash all clothing in hot water and dry in a high setting for at least 30 minutes.

Those traveling within the U.S. can take an extra precaution by visiting the Bed Bug Registry prior to their trip; this database features every recent bed bug complaint at hotels, motels and other lodging accommodations across the country.

How Do I Get Rid of Bed Bugs?

Let’s say you have detected multiple bed bug warning signs, and believe an infestation has been established in your home. No need to panic! There are several effective techniques for exterminating bed bug populations and restoring your home to a pest-free environment.

First off, avoid throwing away your mattress and bedding, furniture and other household items that may be infested. These belongings can be quite expensive to replace, and complete disposal will be unnecessary as long as you use proper extermination methods.

If you rent your home, look into whether your landlord is responsible for taking care of the bed bug infestation before tackling the problem yourself. Though the law varies by state, sometimes landlords must pay for pest control if it’s clear that the tenant didn’t bring in the bed bugs. Landlords are often also required to notify you of any history of bed bug infestation in your unit.

If the infestation is not your landlord’s responsibility to take care of the bed bugs in your living space – or if you don’t rent your home – then we suggest the following techniques.

Treating a Bed Bug Infestation Yourself

Let’s say you have detected multiple bed bug warning signs, and believe an infestation has been established in your home. No need to panic! There are several effective techniques for exterminating bed bug populations and restoring your home to a pest-free environment.

First off, avoid throwing away your mattress and bedding, furniture and other household items that may be infested. These belongings can be quite expensive to replace, and complete disposal will be unnecessary as long as you use proper extermination methods.

If you rent your home, look into whether your landlord is responsible for taking care of the bed bug infestation before tackling the problem yourself. Though the law varies by state, sometimes landlords must pay for pest control if it’s clear that the tenant didn’t bring in the bed bugs. Landlords are often also required to notify you of any history of bed bug infestation in your unit.

If the infestation is not your landlord’s responsibility to take care of the bed bugs in your living space – or if you don’t rent your home – then we suggest the following techniques.

Step 1: Scour the Property

Determine which rooms are experiencing the highest rates of infestation. Check all mattresses, box springs, and bed frames, along with other areas of the bedroom, living room sofa beds, and any other places where people sleep in the house. Once the primary infestation areas have been located, you can begin exterminating the bed bug populations.

Step 2: Strip and Wash Your Bedding

Remove all bedding from your mattresses, box springs and sofa bed cushions. Use a brush or comb to remove bed bugs and eggs, and then run a vacuum over each surface until all bed bugs, eggs, skin casings and other remnants are gone. Then take the vacuum outside and dispose of the bag.

Place all sheets, pillowcases, bed linens, curtains, and clothing in a plastic trash bag, and then contain this in a second trash bag. Also include bedding materials for any pets in the house. Take these items directly to a washer. Wash them in hot water of at least 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54.4 degrees Celsius), and then dry on the highest temperature setting for at least 30 minutes. Be sure to dispose of the inner bag in an outside waste container once the items are in the washer.

Step 3: Treat Non-Washable Belongings

These items include shoes, stuffed animals, pet toys, backpacks, sleeping bags, purses and pillows. Heat treatment is the most effective method for these items. For best results, bag all items in a dryer-safe bag and dry on the hottest setting for at least 30 minutes.

For an alternate method, extreme cold can also exterminate bed bugs. Storing these items in a freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-19 degrees Celsius) for at least four days will kill off most remaining bed bugs and eggs.

If you have items that can’t be placed in a washer or dryer, such as luggage and furniture, the EPA recommends extreme heat treatment using a portable heating chamber or heat-generating device. This requires the items to be exposed to heat of at least 120 degrees Fahrenheit (48.9 degrees Celsius) for 90 minutes or longer.

Step 4: Clean the Entire House

After the mattresses and bedding have been secured, vacuum all carpets and rugs in the home. Steam treatment is also highly recommended. Additionally, you should purchase an encasement for every mattress and box spring in the home if you haven’t done so already.

Responsibly dispose of any mattresses, box springs, furniture and other items that cannot be salvaged. Strip all covers, filling and fabric upholstery. For small items, be sure to mark them with a bed bug warning in spray paint before discarding in a dumpster. For large items, you may want to enlist in the services of a junk removal, curbside trash pickup or mattress recycling service. You may also be able to deposit your infested items at the local dump or transfer station.

Additional Measures

If your entire home is infested, your best option for dealing with bed bugs will probably involve the assistance of a pest control specialist. Professional services may also be required for those living in rental units, since other residents may also be at risk; any apartment tenants with bed bug concerns should contact their landlord immediately. The cost of bed bug extermination will usually vary from $500 to $1,500, depending on property size.

As a last resort measure, pest control specialists may suggest fumigating the entire building. Fumigation often includes a thorough chemical treatment, as well as a heat treatment during which the indoor temperature is increased up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius) for at least 45 minutes. This will require vacating the premises until the process is complete and the chemicals have aired out.

You may also employ insecticides to exterminate bed bugs if you wish. The EPA has registered more than 300 chemical products used to exterminate bed bug populations.

Post-Infestation Needs

Once the infestation has been contained and all bed bugs have been killed, you must monitor your home to ensure the little pests do not return. Check mattress and box spring encasements on a regular basis, and use alcohol to kill any lingering bed bugs you encounter. Also consider installing some interceptor traps throughout your home. These shallow, cup-shaped devices are placed beneath all bed posts and furniture legs; since these features are usually slippery, the interceptor will act as an inescapable moat for bed bugs that slip and fall.

Glue traps may be useful, as well. These devices can be placed in dark areas of the bedroom, as well as spaces behind pictures, furniture and bed headboards. If your encasements, interceptor traps and glue traps are mostly bug-free, then your infestation has probably been controlled; if a large number of bed bugs still appear, then you may want to consider another inspection and chemical treatment.

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