— This article by Jerry Cates was begun on 9 October 2017, first published on 10 November 2017, and last revised on 21 April 2018. © Bugsinthenews Vol. 19:10(01).
One of the first questions asked, by almost every person who learns they have a bed bug infestation in their home, office, or rental unit, is “How can I make sure this never happens again?” On the other hand, you may have never have had bed bugs, but if you happen to know someone who has been through that unhappy experience, your thinking will be along the lines of “How can I make sure that never happens to me?” These are good, important questions. Most of the time bed bugs can be avoided. In the opinion of many, this researcher* included, they can almost always be avoided — even if you are unlucky enough to become exposed to a serious infestation of them, knowingly or not, during your travels — simply by following a few simple rules.
*I am regularly exposed to some of the most horrendous infestations of bed bugs imaginable and, every month, I lodge in relatively low-cost hotels and motels several days at a time, yet I’ve never brought bed bugs back to the office, to my home, or — to the best of my knowledge — to any other locale afterward. Why? I follow the steps enumerated here. It’s that simple…
Reading this article may provide answers to whichever of the above questions happens to apply to your particular case. It may also help you help others. If you own or manage a rental property, for example, you can use the information in this article to educate your tenants on how to avoid bringing bed bugs to your rental units. In fact, anyone who follows the steps discussed here will significantly reduce their chances of getting bed bugs. Though today bed bugs are widespread throughout the USA, their infestations are not inevitable. The steps needed to avoid them are relatively simple and easy to follow.
But First, Here’s a Short List of What Not To Do…
Before digging into the positive things you can do to avoid bed bugs, let’s dispel some of the more prevalent myths about bed bug avoidance. I am shocked at the amount of misinformation found in the media and on the Internet on the subject of avoiding bed bugs. Not only do these myths steer people in the wrong direction, they lead to costly expenditures, often of the kind that make a bad situation worse. As you read the following you may find yourself scratching your head a few times, and muttering things like “This is crazy, what he’s saying here makes no sense…” If that happens, don’t stop reading, and don’t jump to the natural conclusion that I am either naive or dead wrong. I’ve learned what I’m revealing here over more than 40 years of research, as an avid student of the College of Hard Knocks, and even though some of what I write will appear unconventional, or even counterintuitive, it is based on costly experience and hard-won knowledge:
— Myth # 1: “You should replace your mattress and box springs every 1-2 years in order to prevent bed bugs.” Fact: Whoever came up with this ridiculous idea must believe in spontaneous generation of bed bugs. Bed bugs have to be acquired from somewhere, they don’t simply materialize out of nothingness simply because your mattress and box springs are “too old.” If you don’t have an active bed bug infestation, your mattress and box springs will last as long as you want them to last, bed bug free, provided you follow the suggestions described here. If you do have bed bugs (i.e., if you’ve been unfortunate enough to have acquired them from somewhere else, it’s too late to prevent them. BUT, once you have bed bugs the last thing you should do is replace your bed bug infested mattress and box springs! Moving an infested mattress and box springs from a bedroom to the trash is an excellent way to spread the infestation around, which is exactly what you don’t want to do.
— Myth # 2: “You should put protective bed-bug-proof encasements on your mattresses or box springs to prevent bed bugs.” Fact: This is another spontaneous generation myth; bed bugs don’t materialize out of nothingness just to get into your mattress and box springs… If you don’t already have bed bugs, there is no need to install a bed-bug-proof encasement on either your mattress or your box springs as a means of preventing them. If bed bugs get on your bed, the presence of an encasement won’t prevent a bed bug infestation, but will simply keep them from nesting inside your mattress and box springs; the encasement won’t kill the bugs, or prevent them from nesting somewhere else, nearby, including on or in the seams of the encasements. Of course, if you do have bed bugs you will soon need to install a bed-bug-proof encasement on both your mattress and box springs, but not before they are treated by a professional. Never install such encasements on untreated mattresses or box springs!
— Myth # 3: “You should use essential oils to prevent bed bugs.” Fact: If you check out the research I publish on my sister website, Buds In The News, you’ll see I happen to regularly use a long list of essential plant oils for lots of different purposes. Some of those essential plant oils do repel and even kill bed bugs on contact, but they’re no good for preventing or treating bed bug infestations. If your bedroom already has bed bugs, using essential oils won’t consistently keep them from getting into your bed or getting onto you. If your bedroom doesn’t have bed bugs, essential oils aren’t needed to prevent them (following the rules described here will do that), though you certainly may want to use them for other purposes. I write this as one who appreciates the beneficial and worthwhile uses of essential oils, and as one who has been researching and personally using essential oils for over 50 years (please do check out my website, Buds In The News, for articles from my research on botanicals and the essential oils derived from them). If essential oils were capable of preventing and/or treating for bed bugs (unfortunately, they aren’t), I’d be the first to champion them for that. Of course, as mentioned earlier, some essential oils will kill bed bugs on contact, but they won’t utterly destroy an infestation, and with bed bugs total destruction of the infestation is the only thing that works: Never trust the use of essential oils as a means to prevent or treat for bed bugs: they are simply not effective in that role!
— Myth # 4: You should clear out clutter to prevent bed bugs. Fact: This appears to be yet another spontaneous generation myth… clutter doesn’t cause bed bugs, they have to come from somewhere. Of course, it’s always a great idea to reduce clutter in your home and office, but do that to improve your life in general, not to prevent bed bugs (clearing out clutter won’t do that). If you do have bed bugs, right then is the absolutely worst time to clear out clutter: the clutter probably is infested with bed bugs, too, and clearing it out will just help spread them around. Never clear out clutter if you think you have bed bugs, or you will probably just make a bad situation worse! On the other hand, clearing out clutter while you are bed bug free is always a good idea, not to prevent them (it won’t), but simply because if you ever do get bed bugs and your infested room is cluttered, the treatment program needed to eradicate them will be more complicated and will cost more to carry out.
— Myth # 5: You should install door sweeps and door jams to prevent bed bugs. Fact: Installing and maintaining good quality door sweeps and door jams is always a great idea, but not to prevent bed bugs (door jams and sweeps won’t do that). They can work well keep many other insects — like flies, spiders, and larger insects like waterbugs — out of your home and bedroom, but it is rare for bed bugs to move from one place to another by crawling under your bedroom door. Even if one tried to do that, no door sweep or door jam is likely to work well enough to keep it out; even the best door sweeps and jams don’t seal that well, for good reason. Healthy homes need good airflow from one room to another, and sealing doors and windows so thoroughly that bed bugs could not get through them would create an unhealthy home.
— Myth # 6: Only stay in top grade hotels. Fact: Many bed bug infestations are picked up in 5-star hotels, and lots of people (myself included) frequent lower-cost hotels/motels without ever picking up bed bugs. Regardless of the rating of the hotel you stay in, you can avoid bed bugs just by following a few simple rules that have nothing to do with the rating of the hotel you stay in. Further, just because a hotel claims to change out its mattresses and pillows every six to twelve months does not guarantee its rooms will be bed-bug-free. Once bed bugs are brought into the hotel room by a guest, they can start a full-blown infestation within a couple of weeks!
— Myth # 7: “You should check the bed, nightstand, and upholstered furniture in your hotel room for signs of bed bugs.” Fact: Yes, by all means, check the furniture in your hotel or motel room for bed bugs! Just don’t expect that, alone, to protect you from an existing bed bug infestation in that room. Because the sheets and pillowcases on most hotel/motel beds and pillows are replaced by fresh linens with each new guest at even the low-cost motels, chances of finding signs of bed bugs on them are pretty low even if they are present in the mattress, box springs, or bed frame. A serious infestation in a hotel or motel room will be easy to spot, not only for you but also for the housekeepers, so unless your hotel room is badly infested the bed bugs won’t be visible to any but the best-trained professional (and in lots of cases, even the best-trained professional won’t find a bed bug infestation in its earliest stages of development).
— Myth # 8: “You should unpack your suitcase outside, rather than bringing it into the house to unpack.” Fact: If you do what I recommend later in this article, your luggage won’t be at risk of being infested with bed bugs when you get back home. If you don’t follow these recommendations, well… you’ll have a lot more to worry about than your luggage! There are times, of course, when you realize that you’ve been exposed to a serious bed bug infestation even though you’ve followed all or most of the recommendations I list here. If that happens, yes, do unpack outside and carry out all the other recommendations on what to do once you know you have bed bugs or have been exposed to them. Otherwise, though, unpack the way you’ve always unpacked.
So, What Should You Do to Prevent Bed Bugs?
You need to know some basic facts about bed bugs before we get into the nitty-gritty below, because those facts help you understand why the tips that follow are so important. The most important thing to know about bed bugs is that they are attracted by the carbon dioxide in your breath while you are sleeping, and it is that attraction that brings them to the bed where you lie. There they will carefully approach your body, until they come into contact with your bare skin where they can begin to feed on your blood. Once they are full, they will leave your body and go some distance away to nest. If, while on their way to their usual nesting area, they encounter an article of clothing you are not wearing but that has your scent on it, they are likely to take up residence in that article of clothing instead of continuing to their usual nest. That is how most people wind up picking up bed bugs and taking them home. Besides that, you can also bring bed bugs home in used articles of furniture and clothing you find or buy, so:
- Avoid staying in cabins, dormitories, or similar facilities that are run by volunteers or that require guests to clean their own rooms. Often such facilities are unkempt, dirty, and cluttered, to the point that all parts of each room may be so infested with bed bugs that it will be nigh unto impossible to avoid getting them into your luggage. If bed bugs are brought into such places they will be very difficult to detect and almost impossible to avoid. Some of the worst bed bug infestations I’ve treated were traced to such facilities as these, particularly when sports teams, debating teams, choral groups, etc., were provided rooms at little or no cost in cabins and dormitories while on tour. NOTES: A. If you are associated with a church, sports group, or other organization that tends to seek out and accept free or low-cost lodging while on tour, it would be wise to recognize the risks that come with that practice, and consider requiring your organization and/or members to take lodging at a facility that is maintained by a housekeeping staff and is certifiably clean, free of clutter, and kept that way constantly, even if that means an increase in costs to your organization and/or your members. If cheap or free lodging winds up costing you and/or your members a costly bed bug treatment later, you will be out a lot more than ordinary lodging would have cost. B. If you are responsible for providing such facilities to visiting groups, you would be wise to take steps to ensure your cabins, dormitory rooms, etc., are certifiably clean, free of clutter, and are kept that way at all times, even it this means you must limit how often and to whom you offer your facilities to, and makes it necessary for you to pass on the cost of cleaning, inspections, etc., to your guests. Failing to follow these commonsense practices can expose you and your organization to a number of severe and costly liabilities; if a visiting group picks up bed bugs at your site, takes them home, and later traces them back to you, your organization may be on the hook for expensive bed bug treatments for everyone in that group. Neither charity nor altruism is worth the cost, if that happens.
- Never take free beds, mattresses, box springs, sofas, or furniture sitting on the curb. There’s usually a good reason why that stuff is on the curb, and it usually isn’t obvious on the surface. You probably won’t be happy when you discover what that reason is.
- Don’t buy used beds, mattresses, box springs, sofas, furniture, or clothing, no matter how tempting it may be. That cheap but expensive-looking sofa isn’t so cheap if it ends up costing you a bed bug treatment later on. How cheap is used clothing if you have to put it in a brand-new garbage bag, then take it to a laundromat to wash and dry it on hot cycle before you can take it home?
- When sleeping out, in a bed that is not your own (doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, security personnel, and others who work long shifts and sleep in or nap on communal cots, or who perform charity medical work in the third world or in facilities that house indigents and/or otherwise provides you with sleeping and/or napping bunks, please pay close attention to this tip), wearing the basics (pajamas & underwear) is fine, but try not to sleep in the outer clothing you will wear when you depart that facility to head home. It is unlikely bed bugs will nest in your jammies or underwear, but they will often nest in your outer clothing if you wear those articles in bed. Then, when you change out of that clothing, and place it in your luggage, well… you know what happens next: the nesting bed bugs hitch a ride to your home. Now, if you are, say, a visiting doctor or nurse who has to sleep in the facility where you are providing medical services, and for obvious reasons you have to sleep in your outer clothing, remember to change out of that clothing into fresh, certifiably bed-bug-free clothing that you’ve been keeping in bed-bug-proof pillow encasements in your go-bag, just before you depart; place your used clothing in another bed-bug-proof pillow encasement you’ve brought just for that purpose, and zip it up before placing it in your go-bag.
- Let’s say you and your significant other get amorous while sleeping in a bed that is not your own, and in the process you shed what underwear you happen to be wearing at the time; well and good, but once the amorous moment has passed, remember to either put your underwear and jammies back on as soon as you can, or treat it properly as used underwear (see 6, below). Otherwise, if bed bugs are present, they may take up residence in your shed clothing, and will easily hitch a ride to your home with them later.
- When traveling, take along a bed-bug-proof pillow encasement in which to store your pajamas and used underwear; if you expect to have to sleep in your outer clothing in a bed that is not your own, in a facility that is not being managed by a professional housekeeping staff, keep your clean clothing in another bed-bug-proof pillow encasement, and keep that encasement zipped when you are not removing clothing from it. When you take off your clothing to prepare for bed, hang it in the closet if in a facility that provides a professional housekeeping staff (or in a zipped bed-bug-proof pillow encasement if not), not on the bed or on a chair, but when you remove your pajamas and underwear to prepare to shower, store them in the bed-bug-proof-encasement reserved for used clothing, then zip it shut, and place it in your luggage. I place my used clothing (shirts and trousers) back in the clothing bag, on hangers, outside of the plastic sheaths the cleaners placed over them, to avoid the temptation to hang them on the bed, a chair, or anywhere in the hotel room where bed bugs might get into them. It is unlikely that bed bugs will be in the closet.
- When you take your luggage into a home, hotel, motel, or bedroom that is not your own, never place it on the bed or on the floor. Instead, use the luggage rack inside the bedroom where you are going to sleep. Make sure neither the luggage rack nor the luggage touches the wall or another piece of furniture. When you take off your shoes remove your socks as well, then place your shoes and socks in the bed-bug-proof pillow case reserved for your used underwear, then zip it shut and place it in your luggage. Do not hang your clothing in a closet that contains other clothing that is not yours that will come into contact with yours. Carry a door hook in your luggage to hook on the closet door, then hang your clothing on the hook when you are in a bedroom containing hanging clothing that is not your own.
- When you bring your luggage into a hotel/motel bed room, or any bed room that is not your own, immediately hang your clothing bag in the closet and place your luggage on a luggage rack. Never place luggage or clothing bags on beds, chairs, or the floor. If the room has a desk, and you have too much luggage to fit on the luggage rack, place the remainder of the luggage on the desk.
- If you go to a laundromat to wash your dirty laundry, pack your dirty laundry in plastic garbage bags you will take into the laundromat, one at a time, to empty them into the washer; after emptying each bag into the washer, stuff the empty bags into a single bag; once all bags are emptied, throw the bags away. Remove your washed items from the washer as soon as the washer’s last cycle has finished, and place them into fresh garbage bags to transport them to the dryer without using the laundromat’s wheeled cart (such carts often are infested with bed bugs). Then remove the dried clothing from the dryer and place the dry clothing in fresh, unused garbage bags to transport them back to your home. Do not use the laundromat’s folding tables, don’t sit in the laundromat’s chairs or sofas, and don’t lean on the laundromat’s equipment or furniture. NOTE: In case you think these measures are over the top, consider this: whenever a home is treated for bed bugs, the clothing in the treated bedroom(s) that can be laundered is usually taken to a laundromat to be washed and dried while the bed bug treatment is underway; for that reason alone, laundromats — specifically their carts, folding tables, chairs and sofas — carry a high risk of being infested with bed bugs. You can avoid that risk by following the steps enumerated above.
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