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How to get rid of bed bugs

One in five Americans has had an infestation of bed bugs themselves or knows someone who has suffered the problem.

The resurgence of bed bugs in the 21st Century has raised awareness of the insects and increased the need to know how to get rid of an infestation of bed bugs.1-3

Many people remain unsure as to how to handle bed bugs and whether it is possible to eliminate an infestation of bed bugs without expert help. This article can help with both of these concerns.

There are also introductions at the end of some sections to recent developments that have been covered by MNT s news stories. Also look out for any links to information about related conditions.

Fast facts on eliminating bed bugs

Here are some key points about getting rid of bed bugs. More detail and supporting information is in the body of this article.

  • Bed bug infestations have made a resurgence in the US.
  • Infestations with bed bugs are difficult to control because they evade pesticides and are superb at hiding.
  • Hosts can be isolated from biting bed bugs by encasing mattresses and box springs in special impermeable fabrics and installing traps at the bases of bed legs.
  • Decluttering and disposal followed by careful vacuuming and cleaning help to reduce the numbers of bed bugs and eggs.
  • No preventative method is guaranteed to work, and the key to control is early detection and swift action, followed by practical measures to reduce the risk of a reintroduction of the insects.
  • Not all insecticides are effective against bed bugs, due to a need for careful application and increased resistance in bed bugs. Insecticides are best used by professionals after other steps have been taken. Many commercial products sold against bed bugs are ineffective.
  • Heat and cold are effective ways to kill bed bugs bed linen can be washed and dried at high temperatures, for example.

Home measures

Most people affected by bed bugs have been bitten overnight because the mattress is infested the insects typically find sanctuary along the mattress piping.2

[worried woman in bed]
Worried about bed bugs? You can physically isolate your bed from the insects.

Evidence of various life stages can be found here, along with dark spotting from feces.2 Bed bugs go from eggs through juvenile to adult stages, from 1 mm to 5 mm through five nymphal stages, needing a blood meal before each stage.1

It is possible to get a bed bug infestation under control, but there are three key things that make this a particularly challenging infestation:2

  1. There is widespread resistance to existing insecticides
  2. Effective insecticides are lacking
  3. Bed bugs are hard to detect as they are well adapted to hiding in tiny places.

Getting an infestation under control usually means starting with the bed itself. The idea here is to encase the mattress and create a bug-free island see below starting by stripping the bed linen directly into a plastic bag to reduce the chance of spreading the bugs.4

Linen should be discarded or washed in hot water for at least 30 minutes and then dried at high temperature for 30 minutes.4,5

Any furniture left for disposal should be marked as infested with bed bugs or put beyond use by others.5

Vacuum cleaning is an effective final way of removing the remaining bed bugs and even eggs, although deeply harbored bed bugs may evade this strategy.2

Use a vacuum that enables disposal outside and into a sealable plastic bag.2


Moat-style traps may be used to isolate the bed and intercept bed bugs between their hiding places and their journey to bite the host. Bed bugs are unable to fly and can only crawl, so they may be trapped on their way up bed legs.6

Such interceptor devices are available commercially but can also be made effectively at home. The idea is that an outer tray is easy for the bugs to climb up, but that the other side and inner tray is slippery, preventing escape.

Experts from the University of Florida have produced the following video, available on YouTube, explaining how to create home-made moat traps.

Pulling the bed away from the walls and ensuring that bed linen does not touch the floor helps to make the bed an island.6

The second key element to isolating the bed from bugs is to encase the box spring and mattress in a fabric that traps the bugs inside and prevents introduction from outside.

The bed bug control industry calls this encasement and zippered sheets are available that are designed with this goal in mind. The cost of these commercially available products is considerably lower than the cost of a replacement mattress. Encasement should be left on for at least one year.5

Encasement removes hiding areas and makes it easier to spot bed bugs, thereby helping to prevent infestations of new mattresses. The above measures should be taken before encasement.4


If professionals are called in to control a bed bug infestation see the next section, and it is not a small, isolated problem, they may use insecticides after taking nonchemical measures. Some pesticides must be applied by licensed professionals.2,5

In the US there are some 300 insecticide products registered for treating bed bug infestations. These are the main chemical classes:2,5

  • Pyrethins and pyrethroids are the most commonly used pesticides for bed bug treatment. Pyrethins are derived from chrysanthemum flowers while pyrethroids are the synthetic equivalent. They act on the nervous system of the bugs, and some bed bug populations have become resistant to these chemicals, especially older-generation products.
  • Silicates such as diatomaceous earth dust DED are desiccants, destroying the bed bugs waxy, protective outer coating and killing them through dehydration. The effects are physical, not neurochemical, so bed bugs cannot become resistant to these products.
  • Insect growth regulators IGRs examples include S-methoprene, hydropene are pesticides that rely on the insects biting for blood before they take effect, making them an unattractive option
  • Carbamates examples include bendiocarb and propoxur are more effective than pyrethins and pyrethroids, but cases of resistance are emerging
  • Organophosphates no longer in use in the US
  • Neonicotinoids examples include imidacloprid have been found to produce no resistance and are effective, but without a residual effect
  • Pyrroles are very slow-acting with limited efficacy, but no issues of resistance. The only pyrrole bed bug pesticide registered in the US is chlorfenapyr.
closeup of a bed bug
Bed bugs are perfectly adapted for hiding in slim cracks and crevices.

Pyrethins and pyrethroids are largely thought to be ineffective against modern bed bug strains, and there is no particular value in the bedding fabrics marketed as being impregnated with these chemicals.2

Desiccants such as DEDs are effective options against bed bugs and have several advantages, including:2

  • Very long shelf life
  • Very low toxicity to mammals
  • Long residual life
  • Low possibility of resistance
  • Useful as a prophylactic insecticide.

The mode of insecticide application is an important consideration the products need to make direct contact with the bed bugs.2

These methods are NOT considered to be effective: bug bombs, space sprays, total release foggers, and incendiary smoke generators.2,5,6

These products fail to get the insecticide into the cracks and crevices that harbor bed bugs. They also typically contain pyrethroids, which have a flushing effect and so could spread the infestation.2,5,6

Heat or cold

As discussed with home measures, laundering is an effective way of killing bed bugs on fabrics.2

closeup of washing machine
Washing and drying at high temperatures kills bed bugs.

Exposing bed bugs for an hour to a temperature of 45°C 113°F kills all stages, and at temperatures over 60°C 140°F, all bed bugs are killed rapidly.2

Directly applied steam can be an effective tool against bed bugs, as can whole-room or contained heat treatments. However, the latter poses a risk of spreading an infestation because bed bugs will seek the cooler areas in the room beyond the reach of the heat.2

Bed bugs can be killed by cold temperatures, but it requires temperatures below -18°C 0°F for at least 4 days in order for the cold to penetrate an object and kill all the bugs and eggs.8 Smaller items may be put in a suitably cold freezer and the 4-day period should be counted from when the center of the object reaches -18°C 0°F this takes longer for bulkier objects.

Gas systems designed for instant freezing are ineffective and may spread an infestation since they simply blow the bugs away with their high air pressure.2

Trying to eradicate a bed bug infestation by turning off heating and leaving windows and doors open is not an effective strategy and may actually lead to structural damage to a property. Leaving a room empty for more than a year can be effective for killing bed bugs as this deprives them of sustenance they may, however, simply migrate to an adjacent property and return later.2

Professional help

To find a professional pest controller in the US to help eliminate bed bugs, the Pest World website offers a search function that ensures the expert is licensed with the National Pest Management Association.

Guidelines are available for use by the industry, and the pest control process is outlined in these steps:2,8

  • Confirming the infestation by identifying the pest either live or through evidence such as eggs and cast skins
  • Specially trained dogs can be used to sniff out bed bug scent
  • Inspection to determine the areas needing treatment, including adjacent areas in hotels, for example
  • Nonchemical control plus application of insecticide some chemicals may be applied only by professionals
  • Review of the treatment program s success
  • Preventive measures.


The key to reducing the risk from bed bug infestation is early detection by checking bed sheets for tell-tale blood spots, for example, or regularly looking for signs in areas where pets sleep.7

Early detection is more realistic than complete prevention, and there are four key opportunities to disrupt the progression of a bed bug infestation:2

  1. Introduction of the pest
  2. Establishment of an infestation
  3. Population growth
  4. Wider spread of the problem.

Preventing an infestation can be achieved in high-volume/high-turnover residences such as student accommodation by banning the introduction of second-hand furniture or external linen. 2

The use of so-called interceptor devices to isolate beds from the bugs are also useful in early detection so that population growth and spread can be prevented. Encasing mattresses offers further preventive value.2 See above for more about these measures.

Keeping a tidy home free from clutter helps to cut down on the hiding places available to bed bugs.

Reducing cracks and crevices and using metals and plastics instead of woods is also helpful in reducing harborage.

A high-risk time for the introduction of the pest is returning from a vacation or from staying at friends or family who have an infestation the bugs can hitch a ride back with luggage. The following measures reduce the risk of importing bed bugs:2,7

  • Prevent bugs from getting into luggage by also using a large plastic bag
  • Before settling into a hotel room, check for signs of infestation
  • On return from a vacation, vacuum suitcases, launder all clothing and freeze other possessions
  • Avoid second-hand furniture, mattresses and box springs, or look for signs of a bed bug infestation before taking them home.

The following BBC video clip shows a bed bug biting a man and then sucking up blood until it is full.