Bedbugged! 10 myths and misconceptions

By Theresa Braine  | June 23, 2011 - 1:45PM

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

Some new colleagues recently moved to the area, and we wanted to make them feel welcome. So, of course, I brought up the subject of avoiding bed bugs when apartment-hunting.

“Oh, yeah, we signed all those papers,” one guy chuckled. “Anything happens, the exterminator will be right in.”

It sounded like another TC or Bobby situation, although the bed-bug guys used in a big apartment building in 2011 might be a bit more practiced and above-board than the ones my landlord hired when my building was infested in 2009.

What sprang to my mind was, “You have no idea what you’re dealing with, and neither does your landlord if he’s going to throw any old exterminator at this problem. They are NOT roaches!”

The thing is, his concept of the bed-bug problem was vague, as is most people’s.

I am constantly amazed at the misinformation that people seem to have, even with all the media coverage, the city’s bed-bug portal and sites such as (though usually, people generally surf that only if they suspect bed bugs).

Here are just a few popular, bed-bug misconceptions:

1.  “I have to throw everything out.”

Wrong. People think they should immediately ditch their mattress and box spring. Often they do so without wrapping and/or marking it (though it’s now law in New York to wrap it). Then they buy a new bed thinking they've thrown out the problem.

What they don’t realize is that, as John Furman of Boot-a-Pest often says, the bed is just 70% of the problem. The other 30% is around the room. That’s the unknown.

While it’s common to declutter during an infestation so as to lighten one's load and reduce hiding places, it is not necessary to get rid of your possessions. And in fact you should be careful if doing so, because you don’t want to (a) trash a bunch of perfectly good stuff or (b) spread bed bugs. 

2.  A bed bug-proof mattress encasement will deter bed bugs.

Yes, and no. The pests will be blocked from taking up residence in the seams, sides or underside of your mattress, but that may simply cause some of your infestation move elsewhere and be harder to find. The bugs that remain may be in more obvious places, as they will have fewer places to hide on your bed, but the encasement will not reduce the number of bed bugs.

I mean, do you really believe that a bed bug thinks, “Oh, I don’t have a mattress to hang out on. I’ll go to someone else’s apartment where there is a nice bed”?

An encasement that seals bedbugs in, of course, prevents them from feeding on you and eventually kills them. But check for tears, and consider using duct tape on any sharp bed-frame edges. This applies especially to box springs.

3.  Bed bugs are invisible.

Not really. Bed bugs have five nymph stages, plus the adult stage. Eggs are a white, elongated oval and are about a millimeter long. Newly hatched nymphs are translucent white and the size of a poppyseed. 

Once they feed, they darken with blood, shed their skin and grow into second-, third-, fourth- and fifth- instar nymphs before becoming adults (drinking blood between each stage). All nymph stages look like mini bed bugs, except that they are straw-colored at first, sometimes with a dark mass of blood that can be seen inside their bellies. The adult is indeed the size of an appleseed or a lentil.

The reason you can’t see them is not that they are small (the earliest life stages and even the eggs are visible to the naked eye); it’s because they are so good at hiding.

4.  Fecal traces are brown, black or red.

Yes, but… Some are whitish or yellowish in color, because bed bugs pee as well as poop. 

5.  Bed bugs die in cold; therefore, I will stick my (prized possession) in the garage, where they will surely not last the winter.

Wrong. Bed bugs can be killed by cryogenic freezing equipment. But the freezing equipment must (a) come in direct contact with the bug and (b) be about as cold as Pluto.

Putting stuff in the freezer will not necessarily kill them. Fridges and freezers don’t get down to instantaneous bed bug-killing temperatures. Items would have to be stashed in a regular freezer for two weeks or more for bed bugs to die there.

6.  Bed bugs die in heat; therefore, I will seal my (prized possession) in a black contractor bag and set it in the sun/my car.

Nope. Bed bugs die if exposed to 120 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour. That is how long it takes to kill the most resilient life stage, the eggs (though those may take 122 degrees). So if your car is an oven, bake away. But you need to have a way of knowing that the failsafe temperature is reached and maintained within the item, lest the bugs find somewhere cooler to wait it out, in which case they will emerge, unscathed, when you bring it back in.

7.  Bed bugs die in dry cleaning.

Yes, but…They do, but not in the environmentally friendly kind of dry-cleaning. The dry-cleaning chemical perc (short for perchloroethylene) is the one that kills them, and it’s the one that is not used in politically correct dry cleaning. 

8. Bed bugs can live in my hair or on my person.

Wrong. Bed bugs eat and scuttle. They do not hang out on their host the way lice do. They could inadvertently hitch a ride on a piece of clothing or on your backpack, and even harbor there if the thing is stored for any length of time in an infested closet, but they would not harbor on you.

9. I am being bitten. My spouse or partner or roommate is not.

Wrong. Bed bugs, unlike humans, do not discriminate. The truth is that only 30% or 40% of people react visibly to their bites. The majority do not know they’re being bitten. They are.

10. I have bites. That means I have bed bugs.

Maybe. On the other hand, that welt may mean you were attacked by mosquitos or something else. Doctors cannot diagnose bed-bug bites. They can say only whether a bite comes from an insect. If other factors are in line—shed skins, waste traces or bugs themselves—then yes, it’s time for professional inspection. 

For more, see David Cain's list of myths on Bed Bugs Limited, his company's site. 

Next week: Bed bugs and the people around you


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




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