Bed bugs and your apartment

Bed bug nymph.

Bed bug nymph.

Bed bug problems are becoming more common in apartment communities. More than ever, it’s important for tenants and landlords to understand these insects and what it takes to eliminate them from apartments.

What are bed bugs?

Bed bugs are tiny insects that live by feeding on human blood, usually at night. They are secretive, hiding in cracks and crevices during the day, and coming out at night to feed. The bite of the bed bug is painless and may or may not leave a red mark or itchiness.

How do I know whether I have bed bugs?

Bed bugs are small, and come out mostly at night.

Bed bugs are small, and come out mostly at night.

Because of their small size and painless bite, bed bugs may initially go unnoticed. If you notice that you are waking up with itchy welts, see tiny red spots on bedding, or think you have seen the bugs, you may have a problem. Bed bugs do not have nests, but will congregate in choice hiding places. These areas may be marked by tiny dark spots and stains, and may have a sweetish odor.

Will bed bugs hurt me?

Fortunately bed bugs are not known to carry any diseases to humans, although some people may experience irritation or allergic reactions to bed bug bites. Mostly bed bugs are considered disgusting and can be a source of stress and concern for people living in infested apartments.

How do bed bugs get into my apartment?

Bed bug in textured ceiling with droppings (right) around harborage.

Bed bug in textured ceiling with droppings (upper right, lower right and lower left) around harborage between popcorn texture.

Bed bugs are still not very common in the United States, but unfortunately numbers of cases are increasing quickly. Bed bugs are occasionally introduced into an apartment via luggage that has become infested from a hotel or hostel. It is more common to introduce bed bugs from one infested apartment to another during moving, or through picking up used or recycled furniture or mattresses. Once introduced into an apartment building, bed bugs can readily spread from one infested unit to another.

What should I do if I suspect bed bugs?

If you think you see a bed bug, capture it if possible. Place in a leak-proof container, preferably with a little rubbing alcohol, and show it to your apartment manager to confirm its identity. Even if you cannot capture one of the insects, you should inform your building manager if you suspect you have a bed bug problem.

How do you get rid of bed bugs?

If you live in an apartment or condominium, it’s best to alert the property manager right away (preferably by phone and in writing).  In multi-family housing a manager-coordinated bed bug control effort using a pest control company is generally needed. Bed bugs readily move from apartment to apartment, with many people unaware that they have a problem, so chances are that you will not eliminate a bed bug problem by yourself.  If one apartment is infested, adjoining units (left side, right side, above and below) should be assumed to be infested unless shown otherwise through inspection or monitoring.  Simply asking tenants whether they have bed bugs is not enough.  In one recent study only half of residents in a large apartment with bed bugs knew (or admitted) they had a bed bug problem.

Bed bug treatment consists of a thorough inspection followed by vacuuming and treatment of all detected bug hiding spots. Treatment is labor intensive and may take several hours per apartment. It will also probably require several visits and treatments to permanently get rid of a bed bug problem.

What’s my responsibility?

Apartment with clothing and personal items bagged and ready for pest control.

Apartment with clothing and personal items bagged and ready for pest control.

As a tenant, your first responsibility is to report any suspected bed bug problem immediately. Once an appointment is made for your treatment, it will be your duty to prepare your apartment. The following tips will help your pest control service and YOU to get rid of bed bugs quickly.

  • Don’t move any of your things to another apartment during or before the treatment. You might end up spreading bed bugs to the other apartment and may re-introduce bed bugs to your newly-treated apartment later, when you retrieve your belongings.
  • Pick up and double bag all loose items in bedrooms and other rooms to be treated. Clutter makes it difficult for maintenance crews to inspect all parts of your apartment, and gives bed bugs more places to hide.  Before returning these items, follow your pest control company’s instructions for cleaning and inspecting to make sure you are not returning bed bugs to the treated room.
  • Clothing that may be infested should be double-bagged prior to treating the room, and dis-infested before returning to the room. Recent research shows that dry cleaning, washing in hot water, or tumble drying for 30 minutes on high will kill all stages of bed bugs.
  • Even though bed bug treatments are mostly focused on bedrooms and living rooms, it’s still a good idea to put away all food in the kitchen and dining areas, and cover tables, counters, etc. to protect from contamination. Although your pest control professional will be careful and the chemicals used pose minimal risks to people, this step will reduce your risk of unnecessary pesticide exposure and reduce costs for maintenance staff.
  • It’s not very effective (or economical) to discard your mattress, box spring or bed.  Instead, buy a good quality, bug-proof mattress encasement.  Encasements are special sacks that fit over a  mattress or box spring–usually to reduce allergens. The zippers on bed bug-proof encasements are designed to be tight enough to prevent even the smallest life stages of the bed bugs from escaping. Also, truly bed bug-proof encasements are strong enough to prevent bed bugs from biting you through the encasement. A good encasement will trap all bed bugs in the mattress and box spring inside, and will be smooth on the outside, providing few places for bed bugs to hide. Sears, Target, Walmart and other stores may sell bed bug-proof encasements, but they can also be purchased online. One of the best places to look for different brands and reviews of mattress encasements is Amazon.com (whether you buy there or at a local store). Go to http://www.amazon.com and search for “bed bug mattress protectors”.
  • Vacuum couches, chairs and recliners thoroughly before pest control service. Many bed bugs in apartments are found in couches and upholstered chairs. Double-bag and discard the vacuum bags in an outdoors dumpster immediately to avoid reintroducing or spreading any bed bugs caught in the vacuum.
  • Don’t forget to empty drawers in nightstands and dressers next to beds prior to treatment. This will make it easier for the pest control company to inspect and treat these furniture items.  Bag and clean or inspect these items according to the directions of your pest control professional before returning the items to the treated furniture.

It’s essential to cooperate with management and with your pest control professionals to get complete bed bug control. Once established, bed bugs can be difficult to control, especially without the help of tenants like you.

For more information

For more information about bed bugs, including their biology and how to recognize them, see publication L-1742 Bed Bugs as well as the EPA website on bed bugs.  If you live in a situation where professional pest control is not available or not being provided by management, see our publication on Do-it-yourself bed bug control (ENT-3012) for tips on controlling bed bugs.

Author

Michael Merchant, Ph.D., Professor and Extension Urban Entomologist, Texas AgriLife Extension Service.  Dallas.

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