How to kill bed bugs
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

How to Kill Bed Bugs, the Enemy You Sleep With

This is our guide to killing bed bugs. If you're not certain what humanity's mortal enemy looks like, read our guide to identifying bed bugs.

I'd lost count of how many salvos of Raid I'd used on my roommate's mattress by the time I hoisted it up to slip on a plastic cover. As I did so, the bed bugs -- fat with stolen blood -- fell into my hair and dropped lazily to the floor.

They're dead. They're dead. They're dead. Over and over again I repeated the mantra in my head, sealing the heavy-duty plastic up as tight as possible and shimmying it out my door and down three flights of stairs, before running back inside out of the November cold.

That's right. November. Even though bed bug infestations peak in August, rest assured, they appear year-round -- I should know. That's why you need to learn how to prevent and destroy them, ideally before you ever even see one. Winter is coming. This is the definitive guide to preparing for the worst and making war upon your enemy: the common bed bug.

Before diving into this guide, make sure you know exactly what bed bugs look like before you start freaking out.

How to kill the common bed bug: Understand you are waging war

"Bed bugs generally are actually not that difficult to kill," Tom King, field inspector for M&M Environmental, tells Thrillist. Wait, what? Aren't they demons from another dimension, not subject to the laws of nature? Well, King gets called in on big jobs that require a high level of effort. That means large shelves of books, or old-ass furniture, things you want to save. So yeah, he would know.

He and a few other experts told us how to wrangle and slaughter them, step by step. It's important to be strategic, so run your campaign like a general.

Thoroughness is the key word.

Step 1: Scout the field of battle, collect samples, and plan

If you're reading this, you have probably already seen at least one bed bug and never want to see any again, but it's still a good idea to scoop one up and put it in a Ziploc bag. This will show an extension agent or exterminator what you're dealing with, as well as provide evidence in case a landlord is unwilling to comply with laws regulating bed bugs and pest control. (In several major American cities including Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, you can also file a complaint by dialing 311.)

The first thing I did was call my landlord to tell him what the situation was. He put me in touch with his go-to exterminator, who immediately texted me a short checklist (below) of things to take care of before bed bug treatment, then told me that his pesticide extermination would take place in two sessions, one week apart from each other.

In order to prepare for the extermination, my roommate Dan and I took note of where the bed bugs were located in our apartment and communicated that to him. I removed the infested mattress, and we established an obsessive regimen for checking those locations after the treatment.

Step 2: Fence in the enemy, Game of Thrones-style

The checklist my exterminator gave me detailed how I was to bag up my clothing and prepare my living space for extermination -- if you'd like an even more comprehensive one, try looking at American Pest. My exterminator included these steps:

  • All clutter must be thrown out or put away.
  • All clothing must be washed in hot water on the day that the first extermination takes place.
  • After washing clothes, put in plastic bags. Do not put clothes back in closet or chest drawers until after the second treatment is done.
  • Buy plastic mattress covers for beds, mattress, and box springs, the type that covers the entire mattress.
  • Anyone who has respiratory problems, young children, and senior citizens have to leave apartment.
  • No one can be allowed to re-enter apartment or house for four hours.

In addition to those steps, I took some additional precautions...

  • Sealed up anything we wanted to remove -- like Dan's mattress -- in plastic before discarding it. (Note: It's also a good idea to mark them in permanent marker with BED BUGS, but I assumed no New Yorker would pick up a mattress wrapped in plastic off the street.)
  • Vacuumed obsessively, sealing the vacuum bags in plastic and changing them often
  • Moved my bed and all infested furniture (shelving, wardrobes, bookcases, couches, etc.) away from the walls where bed bugs could flee
  • Wrapped my mattress and pillows -- which had no signs of infestation -- in mattress and pillow protectors. (You can order good, cheap bedding protection against bed bugs from Amazon. Investing the money is a no-brainer.)  

Step 3. Amass weaponry

Doing all this is important to contain the bugs before you kill them, but it's also important to make sure you're killing them in the right ways. States differ on what pesticides are legal and illegal, so it's always best to check your laws (and what your landlord says about them) before going to town. The EPA has a search tool to help you find legally registered products to fight bed bugs.

Here are the methods we used in our apartment:

  • Diatomaceous earth -- A white powdery desiccant that you can spread lightly across the floor and that will dry out and harden the outer shell of bed bugs, killing them within a couple of days. (*Important Note: There are a few different types of diatomaceous earth. Be sure to get the one explicitly marked as an insecticide -- not "food-grade" and not "pool-grade" diatomaceous earth.)
  • Handheld steamer -- A little heat can go a long way and is a highly effective, non-chemical way to kill bed bugs.
  • Raid Bed Bug & Flea Killer -- Your standard can of pesticide, available at most hardware stores and supermarkets for around $9
  • Exterminator -- In our case, our exterminator sprayed poison along the cracks and floors of our apartment on two occasions, and we were not permitted to enter our home for at least four hours afterward.

Often, you don't need to resort to pesticides. "Even something like rosemary or peppermint oil in high concentration will kill bed bugs," King says. But the experts agree that using just one method won't cut it, due to the bugs' resilience.

Step 4. Kill the bed bugs, up close and personal

Even though they've developed a resistance, in 70 years, the No. 1 rule for killing bed bugs still hasn't changed: You have to make contact. "The most important single factor in bedbug spraying is the degree of skill and competence of the operator applying the spray," according to one 1940 manual by entomologist G.L. Hockenyos. "Thoroughness is the key word."

Here's what that means for the methods listed above.

For the diatomaceous earth: Contact means sprinkling and spreading the powder in a thin film on floors and in the nooks and cracks where bed bugs could hide. If you have a raised bed, you can even put some on the risers between the floor and foot of your bed, so that the bed bugs will be coated in the powder before they make it to your body. Be sure to clean it up once you're certain the bed bugs are gone.

For the handheld steamer: It's a non-chemical, replenishable direct applicator of heat that is safe to use on most clothes, furniture, books, and almost anything else you might find in a house or apartment. Killing the bastards becomes eminently more doable once you add it to your daily schedule like any chore, hitting your clothes with a blast of heat just in case before you walk out the door in the morning.

For pesticides and exterminators who use them: Unless you are getting all up in the bed bugs' grill, that can of Raid simply won't cut it alone, and it's not a great idea to go spraying it all over the apartment anyway. That's why I used it primarily to kill the bugs on Dan's mattress -- which I knew I was throwing out. Even if you use an exterminator, zapping pesticides around willy-nilly just isn't the right move.

"The difficult part is making contact with them. A regular spray that a lot of exterminators use, the pump-action spray, it tends not work on bed bugs," King explains. "The pressure is too low. The droplet size is too large."

It's the same reason a fogger or a bug bomb isn't a smart move to use on its own. The pesticide won't hit the bugs in the cracks and crevices where contact matters most.

Step 5. Remain vigilant. Always.

Two years later, I still have nightmares of waking up and finding my arms and legs covered in bug bites. After four years of living in New York City I've seen them rip relationships apart. Complacency is death and blood-sucking monsters are no fairytale. Still, in the words of Sun Tzu, "The good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat."

To ensure that no bed bugs crawl across your bed again, do these things, at all costs:

Avoid friends who have bed bugs. Just say, "Sorry, I can't hang out that night." Boom, done. "Bed bugs are primarily transported by humans and their belongings," says Paul Curtis of Terminix, another extermination service.

Avoid bringing things into your home like trash and used furniture. Curtis: "Probably the second-most-common way."

Combine pest control strips with your luggage. 1) Buy this. 2) Stick it (opened) in an empty suitcase. 3) Put the suitcase in a sealed garbage bag for a couple weeks, and voila! Fumigated suitcase.

Reduce clutter in your home, and wash clothing and bedding often. The less often your fabrics drag across the floor and the more often they get nuked in a dryer, the lower your chances of getting bed bugs are.

Seriously, get mattress, box spring, and pillow encasements. They'll be cheaper than anything remotely involving a professional extermination.

Use the Bed Bug Registry. It's a service that lets you look up and report bed bug activity just about anywhere. When you travel and stay in hotels, pack a black light.

Count your blessings. "I worked on a case on the Upper West Side a couple years ago," says King of M&M, launching into a horrific story. "The people living there had these built-in wall units on every wall. Every wall was lined with books, tens of thousands of books, with bed bugs just crawling across them and walking across the ceiling. It was a very heavy infestation. Even their beds and couches were built-in. In that situation, no amount of spraying could ever fix it. It involved, like I said, contractors, carpenters, a moving company. Everything had to be disassembled."

Go the full monty. "This is my wife's rule, by the way," Curtis says, but it's the first thing he does when he gets home after an extermination. "I have to stop in the garage and I have to do a thorough inspection of my suitcase and my belongings, my clothing, and especially shoes. That's an overlooked item. You can not have a live adult or nit bedbug anywhere, but you can have that very small egg, about half the size of a grain of rice. It could just be in one of the crevices in the soles of your shoes or in the seams, where it's sewn together."

It may all sound like a lot, but finding that egg versus not finding that egg would mean dealing with the bed bug problem all over again, and no one wants that. Dan and I still obsessively steamed our clothes for six months after our infestation. In some ways, they never go away.

If they came back, "I’d probably be really depressed and sad," Dan -- still my roommate -- tells me now. "I don’t think I’d react with the same level of panic that I’d reacted with in the past. More like despair and impotence. We'd spray poison everywhere. Steam shit. Do what needed to be done."

Complacency is not an option. In the course of killing bed bugs, channel your inner serial killer. Don't just get rid of bed bugs: Murder the fuckers. Be a bit of a dick about letting friends bring weird shit into your house. Worry about therapy later. Own the fact that, yes, you care for the sanctity of your home, hearth, and health. You will sleep easier if you do these things, and no one will judge you for them.

They will judge you if you still have bed bugs.

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Eric Vilas-Boas will never apologize for sending vermin back to hell, and neither should you. Follow him @e_vb_.