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What's the Best Way to Avoid Bed Bugs?

For decades, the only time people heard about bed bugs was when someone told them "sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite!" But a ban on the powerful but risky insecticide DDT eventually led the little critters to come out of childhood rhymes and alarmingly into modern life. Today, there's a real risk you could carry them home from a hotel or a friend's house and wind up with a blood-sucking infestation. Luckily, entomologists who study the species know a few key ways to prevent that from happening.

When Traveling

If you don't have a bed bug infestation now, your biggest chance of getting one is by bringing the bugs home with you. Hotels are a likely culprit, due to the number of people coming in and out of them each week, and Airbnbs and other shared rooms are at risk as well. Here are a few ways you can avoid taking home an unwanted souvenir:

Don't put your suitcase on the floor. Instead, place it on the suitcase stand, the desk, or even the bathtub — any hard surface where bed bugs couldn't hide.

Before unpacking, check the room for bed bugs. You don't need a microscope to spot them, but you do need a flashlight. An adult bed bug is about the size of an apple seed, as are the spots of fecal matter they leave behind on sheets on mattresses (ew). The reason they're so hard to spot is that they're nocturnal, so they only come out when it's dark. ("They mostly come at night. Mostly.")

As University of Kentucky entomologist Kenneth Haynes explained to Scientific American, "I would pull back the bed covers and look all around the head of the bed. Pull back the sheets, too, and look at mattress seams and edges that are exposed. Bed bugs love to hide under mattress tags. Look all around the box springs, too. If there's a dust ruffle, pull it up and look under it as much as possible. Look for moving bugs and stationary, hiding bugs." Look behind the headboard, too, Haynes advises, since that's also a popular bed bug hiding spot. If the headboard is hanging on the wall, remove it if possible, and look around it carefully if not.

Keep your dirty laundry sealed. A study published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports in 2017 showed that when bed bugs have a choice between a bag of clean clothes and an identical bag of dirty clothes, they're significantly more likely to head toward the dirty clothes. Seal your dirty laundry in a plastic bag, and never, ever toss it on the floor.

At Home

Use your senses. People often know they have an infestation when they wake up in the morning with bites — but not always. At least 30 percent of people don't react to bed bug bites, and even if you do react, you may not react much at first but develop a more severe case later. Just like when you inspect a hotel room, you can use a flashlight and your naked eye to search for the bugs and their fecal stains on your sheets and mattress. And don't forget your sense of smell: Bed bugs give off telltale pheromones that have been compared to the smell of stink bugs at high concentrations or coriander at low levels.

Be smart with secondhand purchases. If you buy used clothing, Haynes suggests putting it in the dryer on a medium-to-high setting as soon as you get home. Buying used furniture is generally a bad idea when it comes to bed bugs, but if you must, ask the store how they deal with bed bugs — if they respond with a blank look, don't buy the furniture.

Call in the professionals. The internet is awash with DIY bed bug solutions, but bed bugs are not easy to get rid of and the chances of you harming your belongings, risking your health, and even setting fire to your bed (in the case of DIY heat treatments) is definitely present. Even vacuuming poses a risk of spreading the infestation to other rooms of the house. If you suspect an infestation, call a trained professional. They'll use a variety of approaches to get rid of bugs in your bed, furniture, carpet, and even the walls in a much more effective way than you could do on your own.

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There's no shame in having bed bugs. For the best way to get rid of them, check out "Breaking Bed Bugs: How to Get Rid of Bed Bugs without Losing Your Mind, Money & Dignity" by Chipp Marshal. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer October 26, 2017

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