Bedbugged! Goodbye, air mattress

By Theresa Braine  | December 17, 2010 - 7:35AM

Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.

By fall 2009, I was sick of sleeping on the air mattress that had been my bed since shortly after my June bedbug discovery. Essentially I was sleeping on the floor. Besides literally bringing me down, it was hard on my knees every time I had to heave myself up.

I had been virtually bite free since around mid-July, except for a couple of mosquito-type welts, and I did not see any evidence of infestation, so I decided to get on with my life. I slowly started unpacking from the plastic bags, and I went about the business of procuring a new bed.

That September I took a quick trip to London for a wedding and grabbed the opportunity to sit down with the estimable David Cain of Bed Bugs Limited (we like the sound of that), the bed bug guru of London, to chat about the problem on the other side of the Pond. 

The subject of beds came up, naturally, and I asked him if there was such a thing as a bed bug–proof bed. He said something that on the face of it was surprising: His is a metal-frame bed that’s fixed up so that if the bugs come in, they will go to a specific spot. He didn’t specify exactly what he had done, but I was intrigued by the concept.

Although this at first seemed counterintuitive, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Bed bugs, after all, will gravitate toward the bed. If you want to know they’re there, what better way than to give them somewhere to go that you can check easily? It seemed brilliant. 

I didn’t see a way to do that in my own bed, but I did think about where they might go as I scoped out various models. Should I get one with legs that I could put ClimbUp Interceptors under? Avoid a wooden bed altogether and buy a metal frame because it might be easier to treat? 

I knew that metal does not deter bed bugs. They can still harbor inside hollow tubing, though it may be easier to kill them there than in wood crevices. And contrary to popular belief, they can climb metal, as entomologist Lou Sorkin’s video of a bed bug nonchalantly crawling up the smooth-looking metal sheath of an artist’s paintbrush will attest. 

In the end I decided not to consider any of that in my bed choice. I chose a model based on how I wanted to live, not on this one incident, trusting in my newfound knowledge to help me out of any future bed bug jams. Thus I got a wooden platform bed tall enough for under-bed storage, with supports that did not fit into ClimbUp monitors. I figured I’d be fine if I stowed rarely used items underneath in taped-shut plastic bins. If the bugs were going to come back, they were going to come back no matter what kind of bed I had. Moreover, since I react to bites, I myself was a pretty good monitor. 

Next, to encase or not to encase? Those scary-looking ads on the subway teeming with larger-than-life bed bugs imply that buying the mattress protector will save you from infestation. This is misleading: The only thing that the mattress encasements will save is your mattress. Now this is not a bad thing, seeing as if you get bedbugs you will not have to worry about them harboring along the underseams on the flip side of your mattress, or in your boxspring if you get an encasement for that too. 

(As the folks at M&M Pest Control pointed out to me, boxsprings can get extremely infested, because there are so many deep crevices for bed bugs to harbor in that it is difficult to reach them with treatment. Better to avoid that scenario altogether by keeping them outside the boxspring, they say.)

This leads to another problem: If the bugs are not able to take root in your mattress or boxspring, where will they go? 

“If you get rid of the bugs in the bed, you’re getting 70 percent of the problem,” Furman is fond of saying. “It’s the other 30 percent that’s hard.” 

A mattress cover does not prevent bedbugs from coming into your home. It just changes where they go. They are attracted to carbon dioxide and body heat. Period. Thus on the one hand, encasements can help with early detection because it’s a bit easier to spot bugs and fecal traces on the smooth surface of the encasement than a rougher mattress surface. 

On the other hand, if you take away the place where 70 percent of your bedbugs prefer to hide, it’s anybody’s guess as to where that bunch will go. They will be as near your bed as possible, to be sure--inside screwheads in the nightstand, behind picture frames, in crevices in your bed frame, even perhaps inside your clock radio--but they will not leave. 

This is not to say that one should or should not buy a mattress cover. (Though I ultimately did--not because I thought it would keep the bugs away, but because I wanted to be able to protect the futon from bugs if they came back.) The point is to know what you’re buying and what you’re protecting yourself from with this expenditure. 

As for the type of mattress to buy, I chose a futon, since I had been comfortable sleeping on the one I’d thrown out, and it was much cheaper than a regular mattress. (FYI, while occasionally you hear of a PCO telling someone that bedbugs can’t live on a Tempur-Pedic mattress, this is not true. The type of mattress you have has no impact on your bed bug vulnerability one way or the other.)

Another reason I chose a futon was that I didn’t trust the regular mattress folks: Some have a rep for exchanging old, potentially infested mattresses for new in the same truck. I had heard too many tales of ripped plastic to believe the assurances that this was ok. 

I grilled the personnel at Economy Foam & Futons, where I got my mattress, and Gothic Cabinet Craft, where I bought my frame, about shipping methods. Did they pick up old furniture when delivering new? Employees at both retailers assured me that only new furniture ever traveled in their vans on its way to new owners, and that even if asked, they did not take the old stuff away. So I felt in the clear on that score. They seemed genuine and hip to the bed bug problem, and in fact both retailers’ employees said it had always been store policy not to swap out old for new, even before the bed bug epidemic. 

Even though I was considered home-free enough to buy a bed before Halloween, I didn’t get one until the following month. I really wanted to be sure. I had no bites to speak of, really. So I took the plunge.

My bed was delivered right after Election Day, nearly five months to the day after their first blatant appearance on my mattress and just before a much-needed trip to Mexico to visit friends. I returned from my trip a week later and dove into my new bed. It was heaven, though I kept the air mattress handy just in case.... 

Next Week: The Longest Year Ever winds down. 

See all Bedbugged!

Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News,  PeopleNewsday and other outlets.  Bedbugged! is her weekly column about life in the bed bug trenches and how to climb out with your sanity intact.

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