Getting bed bugs is a nightmare experience, one that’s sure to cost you oodles of time, money, and emotional distress. The bugs are painfully hard to purge from your household, and it’s getting even harder as they become more resistant to common insecticides. Unfortunately, home remedies are often no match for these parasitic insects. Dousing them with rubbing alcohol (a tip you'll often hear) won’t kill them; in fact, it might just burn your house down, as a woman trying to rid her Cincinnati apartment of bed bugs found out recently. As The Washington Post reported, the alcohol in that case was too close to the flame of a candle or some type of incense, and ignited. It wasn't an isolated incident.
In the last 10 years or so, people trying to kill bed bugs with alcohol have started several house fires across the U.S., including a different incident in Cincinnati just two weeks ago. So short of burning down your entire house and starting over, how do you get rid of them?
The short answer is: Give up on the idea of saving money and call an exterminator. According to 2014 research, plenty of DIY bed bug-killing remedies are woefully ineffective. Rubbing alcohol, in fact, only killed half of the insects sprayed by the Rutgers University researchers in that study. Researchers have found that other recommended home remedies, like moth balls, foggers, or ultrasonic bug repellers, are even less effective. And don’t even think about using “natural” type products that use essential oils as the main ingredient. They might smell nice, but they won’t help your bug problem.
But before you call in the big guns, there are a few effective, concrete steps you can take to reduce your infestation. As Rutgers bedbug specialists Changlu Wang and Richard Cooper wrote in their bed bug fact sheet, putting your belongings in plastic storage bins or garbage bags is a good place to start. Since the bugs don’t like to climb on smooth plastic, this can help contain the infestation. Just make sure to treat whatever you’re putting inside the bags or bins first by putting them through the hot laundry, steaming, heating, or freezing them.
You’ll need a mattress encasement, too. This will keep the bugs that have already infested your mattress from escaping, meaning they won’t be able to feast on you anymore and will die of starvation. Nor will any new bugs be able to get inside to nest. You’ll want to make sure it’s a scientifically tested brand, though, since not all mattress encasements are bite-proof or escape-proof for bed bugs. (Most experts recommend the Protect-a-Bed BugLock encasement, which costs about $81 for the queen-sized version.)
Next, pick up some bed bug traps. Set them up under the legs of your furniture and around the perimeter of rooms to help detect new infestations and reduce existing ones. According to Wang and Cooper, a one-bedroom apartment might need eight to 12 of these traps, while bigger apartments will require more.
You’ll want to expose all your belongings to extreme temperatures before you even think about touching them again. Putting them through the washer/dryer on its hottest setting will do the trick to kill both bugs and their eggs, but if you need to eradicate bugs lurking in items you can’t wash, you can freeze them in plastic bags (as long as your freezer gets down to 0°F). You can also kill them with a steam cleaner, especially if you need to purge them from your couch or other upholstered furniture.
If you’ve still got a large number of bugs lurking in your house, you can tackle them with a vacuum cleaner, sucking them out of seams, zippers, trim, and other furniture crevices. But you’ll want to use a stocking or some other method of protecting your vacuum from being infested itself. (See Figure 6 here.)
Some research has also found that desiccant dusts that dehydrate bugs to death, like diatomaceous earth and silica gel, can be effective at controlling bed bug infestations (silica gel in particular) when spread around the perimeters of rooms, on bed frames and couches, and on furniture legs.
As we mentioned before, you’ll probably want to consult a professional even if you do all of the above, because if you miss even one bug or egg, you'll be back to where you started. The cost of an exterminator pales in comparison to the cost of throwing out everything you own, moving homes, and then realizing you’ve brought the bed bugs with you anyway.
The bad news for anyone who’s already infested is that prevention really is key when it comes to bed bugs. So brush up on what the pests look like, make sure to check your hotel room for them when you travel, and if you spot them in your apartment, make sure to warn your neighbors.