How to get rid of bed bugs and how to tell if you have them

Someone checking a mattress for bed bugs with a flash light
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Googling how to get rid of bed bugs can mean one of two things; either you have bed bugs and need to do something about it, or you’re not sure if you have them and want to take precautions. Whichever the case, don’t worry: We'll take you through everything you need to know about bed bugs, from where they come from to how to tell if you have them, to how to get rid of them. Because knowing how to clean a mattress just isn’t enough. 

Bed bugs aren’t something you should be embarrassed about — it’s actually still a very common problem. The good news is you can deal with it yourself. These methods take time and commitment, but they work and will get rid of these uninvited guests. Here’s a step-by-step guide on getting rid of bed bugs.

What are bed bugs? 

A bed bug up close

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Bed bugs or cimex lectularius are tiny insects, about 5 mm in length, which feed on the blood of humans and animals. They’re flat with an oval-shaped body and appear a reddish-brown color. Because of their size, they’re difficult to see unless in large groups, and they like to hide in concealed spaces — although they’re most commonly found around the bed. 

Bed bugs use the blood to grow and reproduce, and with females laying up to 250 eggs in a lifetime, a small problem can quickly turn into an infestation. These parasites do not transmit disease, but they are a health concern and so need to be dealt with swiftly.

Where do bed bugs come from? 

It’s actually a myth that bed bugs are drawn to dirty environments — aside from more hiding places, this won’t make a difference to these bugs. What they’re actually attracted to is blood, warmth and carbon dioxide. This means most bedrooms would be a suitable environment for these pests — even the best mattress isn’t immune. Once they’ve found a suitable food source, bed bugs will essentially hide near the area and wait for the next meal opportunity.

If you’re wondering how the bed bugs were introduced into your home, there are many possibilities. You may have brought them in on second-hand items such as furniture, or you could pick them up from places you’ve stayed which are infested, such as hotel rooms. Guests can also carry them in unknowingly. Pets are unlikely to bring them in though, as they do not live on the animals.

How can I tell if I have bed bugs? 

A close up of a bed bug on skin

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If you suspect bed bugs, you should investigate immediately — the earlier you catch it, the better. If left untreated, bed bugs can quickly multiply into an infestation which is much more complex and costly to deal with. 

The first sign of bed bugs, which most will be aware of, are bites. Once these parasites have finished feeding, they can leave behind a small mark on your skin, or even a rash. However, these bites can’t be distinguished from other common insect bites, and some people may not react at all. For this reason, you shouldn’t assume you have bed bugs based on bites alone. 

You should look for physical evidence of bed bugs, which can include any of the following: 

  • Dark red stains on your sheets, which could be crushed bed bugs, and your blood! 
  • Yellow shed skins and eggshells can also be seen, although these will be tiny (about 1 mm in length) 
  • The feces of bed bugs look like tiny black spots, and these can be easy to spot on white bed sheets
  • A musty odor may be present 
  • You may spot the bed bugs themselves — while small they’re not invisible to the eye    

How to get rid of bed bugs  

Both chemical and non-chemical treatments are available to get rid of bed bugs. We will take you through what you can do yourself before hiring a professional exterminator. 

1. First, check around your home to determine the extent of the problem. Are the bed bugs contained in your bedroom, or is there evidence under the couch cushions? Popular areas to check include:

  • The seams of the mattress 
  • In the seams of any chairs or couches, including under the cushions 
  • Under loose wallpaper 
  • In the joints of any drawers or furniture 
  • Where the carpet meets the wall and where the wall meets the ceiling  
  • Around electrical outlets 
  • Any crevices on the walls 

2. Now you know where the bed bugs are, you need to stop them from spreading any further. Clear out any immediate garbage from the room by sealing it in a plastic bag before throwing it away. If you want to move items out of the room, be aware that you should seal it first as it could be infested. 

3. Next, vacuum up any immediate bed bugs using one of the best vacuum cleaners. Vacuum both sides of your mattress as well as inside your closet, dresser and anywhere else you believe to be infested. Don’t forget the carpet too!

Someone vacuuming a mattress

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3. Once you’ve done that, empty and seal the vacuum canister's contents into a plastic bag and throw it away in an outdoor trash can. Keep in mind that vacuuming won’t exterminate the bed bugs, but it will keep the numbers down. 

4. Now, you want to wash and launder all infested linens on the hottest cycle allowed in your washer and dryer. This includes bed sheets, clothes, soft toys and upholstery. If the item isn’t suitable for machine washing, you can also use steam, which is just as effective.     

Now that you’ve reduced the numbers, it’s time to kill any unhatched and remaining bed bugs. There are a couple of methods you can try before resorting to chemicals. Not all will work depending on your circumstances, but each are worth considering. 

Non-chemical methods of killing beg bugs

Washing machine

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1. Heat — High temperatures will kill bed bugs, so if you can contain the infested contents, you can run them through the washer and dryer on a high heat setting. You could also use a portable heat chamber for larger items, such as the ZappBug Room Bed Bug Heater ($1,495, Amazon). Professionals can also treat homes with heat if the problem is more severe. 

2. Cold — Cold temperatures will also kill bed bugs. Once again, you need to contain the infested items in a sealed bag and, this time, use your freezer to kill them. Your freezer would need to be set to 0°F and the bag would need to sit for a minimum of four days for it to be effective, so this isn’t the most convenient method.    

3. Steam — As mentioned earlier, steam is a very effective method of killing bed bugs. Steam can penetrate deep into crevices and carpet, meaning it’s got good reach. However, the temperature needs to be at least 130°F and you don’t want the air flow to be too powerful or it can blow bed bugs away. Steamers can be used on many surfaces including mattresses, couches and carpets, but be careful around electrical elements, such as sockets. If you don’t own a steamer, we recommend the Dupray Neat Steam Cleaner ($149.78, Amazon

Someone using a steam cleaner on a couch cushion

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4. Mattress cover — You can bed bug-proof your mattress and boxspring with a cover, such as the SureGuard Mattress Encasement ($54.97, Amazon). Bed bugs that are locked in will eventually die and external bugs won’t be able to infest your mattress while the cover is on.  

5. Bed Bug Traps — You can also buy dedicated traps to catch stray bed bugs, such as Harris Bed Bug Traps ($4.93, Amazon). Traps which sit under furniture legs are also popular, such as Lights Out BedBug Pitfall Trap ($24.40, Amazon).  

Chemical methods killing bed bugs

There are also plenty of pesticides available which you can buy and apply yourself if you feel comfortable. If you choose to do this, make sure you follow the instructions exactly. There are different chemical classes, however pyrethrins and pyrethroids are some of the most commonly used compounds. Desiccants are quite effective as well as they dry out the insects, which will eventually kill them.  

Harris Bed Bug Killer ($20.35, Amazon) is a widely used liquid spray, but if you’ve got children or pets around, then EcoRaider Bed Bug Killer ($18.55, Amazon) may be the better option.

A professional exterminator fumigating a couch

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You can also resort to bug bombs or foggers, however these are highly toxic to humans and animals and should be handled with extreme care. You would have to vacate your home during the process. Plus, there’s no guarantee that this would kill every bed bug as it won’t penetrate cracks and crevices. 

If you’re not comfortable applying these methods yourself, you can always call in a professional to handle the chemicals.

A final note on bed bugs

Bear in mind that bed bugs can take months to eradicate, so you will have to be both patient and persistent. Check the environment every few days to look out for more evidence of bed bugs. It’s very difficult to catch every bug in one application, plus a fresh batch can hatch from the residual eggs, so re-apply your method and continue to check to see if any remain. Got other pests to deal with? Check out how to get rid of moths.

Katie Mortram
Homes Editor

Katie looks after everything homes-related, from kitchen appliances to gardening tools. She also covers smart home products too, so is the best point of contact for any household advice! She has tested and reviewed appliances for over 6 years, so she knows what to look for when finding the best. Her favorite thing to test has to be air purifiers, as the information provided and the difference between performances is extensive.