Bedbugs: Bite Back at These Superpests

Courtenay Edelhart of Bakersfield, Calif. has been up all night, prepping the house for the exterminator. It's been a lot of work, removing all the clothes, bedding, linens, pillows, stuffed animals and fabric from the house. "I'm delirious with exhaustion," she says. But the effort has been worth it. Today, she's getting rid of the bedbugs.
Bedbugs -- flat, oval insects with a reddish-brown color -- hide in the cracks and crevices of mattress seams, bedsheets, sofas, baseboards and even picture frames. They mainly come out at night, to feed on you while you sleep. You can't feel the bites of these nocturnal pests until after they've finished their meal.
Initially Edelhart thought the itchy red bumps on her arms were mosquito bites. " I started putting on bug spray before walking the dog, but instead of helping, the bites got worse," she says. "One morning I'd wake up with one or two, the next day I'd have five or six, the next day I'd have eight or nine." After a while she noticed them on her legs, too.
She's not alone. The U.S. has seen a resurgence of bedbugs since 1972, when the pesticide DDT was banned. Since then they have become resistant to many other pesticides. More and more, they're turning up in hotels (where they arrive with a visitors' luggage and hitch a ride home on yours), as well as in movie theaters and even retail stores.

Once in your home, they're notoriously hard to get rid of. Females can deposit one to five eggs a day and may lay 200 to 500 eggs in a lifetime, according to pest-control company Orkin. Under normal room temperatures and with an adequate food supply, they can live for more than 300 days.

Here, Edelhart shares some lessons that she learned the hard way about detecting and getting rid of bedbugs.

1. Look for them in the right places

When she began to suspect that the problem was bedbugs, Edelhart called the exterminator and immediately stripped the bed, looking for the critters. But the exterminator told her she was looking in the wrong place. "He said, 'You'll never see one on top of the mattress, because they like to hide in obscure places,' " Edelhart recalls. Instead, he advised, look underneath the mattress, under the bedskirt and behind the headboard. Sure enough, when she lifted a corner of the fitted bed sheet, two bedbugs fell out. She trapped them in an airtight sandwich bag and waited for the exterminator to arrive to confirm what she had found.
2. Don't try to get rid of them yourself

Bedbugs are hard to kill. Over-the-counter pesticides don't do the job, and all the experts that Edelhart consulted said that she needed to hire a professional . "I'm a single mom and can't afford to spend thousands of dollars on pesticide services," Edelhart says. "But from everything I had read in my Internet research, I knew I had no choice."

3. Do the prep work thoroughly

Edelhart had to empty her house of every stitch of fabric -- clothes, bedding, linens, pillows, stuffed animals, curtains -- and wash it all. Then, because bedbugs can't survive extremely high temperatures, she ran everything through the dryer, which kills the adults and eggs.
Just for good measure, she also set off an over-the-counter bedbug-fogger in the area of the washer/dryer, in case any bugs escaped. "I know it probably won't work," she says, "but you just feel so miserable and powerless that you'll try anything and everything."

4. Be prepared for multiple treatments

Even with the exterminator's visit, it may take several treatments to fully eradicate the bedbugs. "And even if the first one works, the exterminator said it will take about 10 days for them to die," Edelhart says. It has been a long ordeal, but Edelhart is looking forward to getting a good night's sleep again when it's all over. "I haven't decided yet if I will throw out the mattress or try to wrap it in one of those bedbug proof covers after the treatment," she says. "I would burn the thing if I could, but there's no new mattress money in the single-mom budget."

(Note to Courtenay: Ditch the mattress.)

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