Explainer: Eek — what if you get bed bugs? | Science News for Students

Explainer: Eek — what if you get bed bugs?

No need for panic or embarrassment — just action
May 15, 2015 — 7:15 am EST
What to do if bed bugs bite — or threaten to

Bed headboard treated with diatomaceous earth to control a bed bug infestation. (This image has been cropped.)

NY State IPM Prog. at Cornell Univ./ Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Oh no — you think you have bed bugs? First, don’t be embarrassed. Keep in mind that people have had to deal with these pests for thousands of years. The insects are so common that they’ve plagued even kings and queens.

If bed bugs have moved in, you may start getting suspicious bites. You also may be able to spot the critters. Bed bugs like to squeeze into tight places. Usually they hide in bedrooms, so begin there. Start by inspecting your mattress. Look along its seams. Also check your headboard and bedframe, and any other potential hiding places near your bed. You may not always be able to see them because they are so good at hiding. If you are getting bitten, even if you can’t find any bed bugs, your family should call a professional. If you rent your home, the landlord may be responsible for paying for an exterminator (although that depends on the rules in your community).

Before the pest control company arrives, you should wash all of your clothes and bedding in hot water. (First, make sure the materials can handle high temperatures.) Then machine dry everything at a high temperature. Afterward, seal all those clothes and bedding in plastic bags or plastic boxes. That will keep bed bugs from infesting everything again while you treat the rest of your home. Vacuum your home really well, too, and get rid of clutter. If you live in an apartment, your neighbors may have to do the same things. Bed bugs spread easily between apartments in a single building. So if you have bed bugs, your neighbors might too. If you treat your apartment and your neighbors don’t, their bed bugs might spread back to your home.

Where a bed bug infestation is confirmed, an experienced exterminator will likely use a mix of treatments. This process is called integrated pest management. Those treatments may include insecticides. In addition, many exterminators will dust an infested area with something known as diatomaceous earth. This material is made from the crushed fossils of hard-shelled algae. As bed bugs walk through the dust, the sharp edges of the tiny powdered shells will cut them. Those cuts allow the bugs to dry out and die. Another tactic for killing the bugs: Apply heat. Maintaining an infested area at a temperature of 47.8° Celsius (118° Fahrenheit) for 90 minutes will kill bed bugs and their eggs.

Warning: Don’t use insecticides or heat treatments on your own. Some people who have tried to get rid of their bed bugs have ended up poisoning themselves. Others have burned down their houses. When in doubt about what to do, call in an experienced professional.

The best way to deal with bed bugs, of course, is to avoid getting them in the first place. So when you travel, inspect your hotel bed for the bugs just as you would if you thought you had them at home. Don’t put your suitcase or other belongings on hotel beds, because that may make it easier for the insects to hitchhike home with you. And do your laundry with hot temperatures just as soon as you get home. Finally, don’t forget to wash or heat your luggage too, if possible.

Brooke Borel is the author of a new book on bed bugs.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

algae     Single-celled organisms, once considered plants (they aren’t). As aquatic organisms, they grow in water. Like green plants, they depend on sunlight to make their food.

bed bug  A parasitic insect that feeds exclusively on blood. The common bed bug, Cimex lectularius, sucks human blood and is mainly active at night. The insect’s bite can cause skin rashes and welts that sometimes look like a mosquito bite, but different people react in different ways

diatomaceous earth    A form of sedimentary rock made from silica, clay and iron oxide. It occurs naturally and readily crumbles into a whitish powder. It consists of the fossilized shells of a type of microscopic algae, known as diatoms — hence the material’s name.

diatoms    Tiny, ocean-dwelling organisms made of no more than a few cells. Diatoms have cells made of silica, or glass. They live like plants, using sunlight to turn carbon dioxide into sugars.

exterminator   A person whose job is to control or kills insects, rodents, and other pests. Sometimes also called a pest controller or a pest control operator.

fossil   Any preserved remains or traces of ancient life. There are many different types of fossils: The bones and other body parts of dinosaurs are called “body fossils.” Things like footprints are called “trace fossils.” Even specimens of dinosaur poop are fossils. The process of forming fossils is called fossilization.

infest  To create a parasitic community, such as when wasps infest the porch of an abandoned house. Such a community of pests is known as an infestation.

insect  A type of arthropod that as an adult will have six segmented legs and three body parts: a head, thorax and abdomen. There are hundreds of thousands of insects, which include bees, beetles, flies and moths.

insecticide A poison used for killing insects.

integrated pest management  (abbreviated IPM)  The process of using primarily non-chemical steps to reduce pest problems. IPM practices allow the use of chemical pesticides, but only as a last resort.

pesticide  A chemical or mix of compounds used to kill insects, rodents or other organisms harmful to cultivated plants, pet or livestock, or unwanted organisms that infest homes, offices, farm buildings and other protected structures.


National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky. Bugs without borders. 2011.

B. Borel. Infested: How the bed bug infiltrated our bedrooms and took over the world (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Further Reading

S. Perkins. “Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” Science News for Students. May 20, 2014.

R. Kwok. “True vampires.” Science News for Students. October 28, 2013.

S. Milius. “Bloodsuckers get out of bed.” Science News for Students. January 4, 2012.