Bedbugged! The best advice I can give you

By Theresa Braine  | September 22, 2011 - 8:15AM

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

I sat on a panel last week, staring out at a few dozen faces, some of them wearing blank looks. I knew that look: sleep-deprived, slightly panicked, a tad shell-shocked. These were the people who had just discovered that their apartments had bed bugs.

One of the questions posed was: “What would you tell someone who came up to you and said his or her apartment was infested? What is the first thing one should do?” Even I, having thought about bed bugs regularly for more than two years now, was a bit stymied.

My first thoughts were along the lines of, “Prepare ahead.” But, of course, once you’ve discovered bed bugs, the time for advance preparation has passed, and your learning curve is steep. So after scratching my head a little, I came up with a few essentials.

• Save samples.

This is very important. As icky as they are, you must not squish and flush bugs or evidence. They are what you give to your pest-control professional, a.k.a. your bed-bug CSI.

That person, if he or she is good, can tell you (a) if it is indeed a bed bug and (b) glean a fair amount of information about your infestation from the age, sex and other characteristics of the bug. Save as many samples as you find. You may need to show them to more than one person.

• Get a second opinion.

Just as with a diagnosis, consider consulting another professional for a positive bed bug ID, especially if your landlord is bringing in his “spray and pray” baseboard jockey, i.e. the building’s roach guy. You will want to consult an entomologist or other bona fide bed-bug expert.

There are lots of methods for that, from linking your photos to a thread online, to mailing an actual (dead) bug to entomologists or bringing it to their offices. M&M Environmental will i.d. bugs—I took what turned out to be a non–bed bug there last summer—that you bring in, or you could mail samples to any one of a number of entomologists, such as those at Cornell University's Department of Entomology

• Tell the landlord or management company.

These people need to know so they can take charge of what’s going on in the building—inspecting and/or treating other units, adding your apartment to a list of infested ones they’re already tracking/working on, or what have you. They cannot take proper action if they lack information.

• Get your neighbors involved.

Now is as good a time as any to bond with the people who live next door, above and below you. Get to know them and open up about this problem. You may find that they have been battling this for some time, in which case you’ll get a good idea of where the bugs came from.

You’ll also learn whether there are any recalcitrant neighbors who won’t let exterminators in. Hopefully, your building manager will be on the ball enough to get a good PCO and to view this as a collaborative effort. Hopefully, your neighbors—and you, for that matter—will too. 

A few words on what NOT to do:

• Do not start throwing things out.

More often than not, you can treat your bed and other furniture, and can save yourself the cost of replacing everything. You also risk spreading bugs unless you treat your stuff first. And if it’s infested and you’re treating it, why not keep it?

• Do not assume that your apartment is the origin.

The first person to notice a bed-bug infestation may not be the first person to get one. Taking responsibility for an infestation brings the specter of blame, as in “This is someone’s fault.” It isn’t.

Even if it did start with your apartment, unless you brought in used furniture from the street (which these days should put a person on the wait list for Darwin Awards housing), it is not something you did. It is something you caught, the way one catches flu.

• Do not move out of the bedroom.

I did this initially, at my first exterminator's suggestion. Bad idea. They followed me to the couch. If you want to spread the things and make your problem worse, then by all means, sleep all over the house! 

• Do not DIY.

If you had a stomachache, would you decide it was appendicitis, slice open your abdomen and yank out the offending organ? I didn’t think so.

Once bed bugs are entrenched, it is a building problem, not just your problem. The lack of understanding of that is one factor that allows them to spread. The lack of preparation for an infestation protocol is the bane of eradication, as is the lack of cooperation, and the blaming and all the other emotional baggage that too often comes along for the ride.

That’s why the best advice I can give is what should be followed before an infestation comes to light: Inspect regularly, and educate yourself, because if and when bed bugs arrive in your residence—over which you have some, but not 100 percent control—you will need to move quickly to gauge the situation and start the process of putting it behind you.

If you wait until you know you’ve got an infestation, you may be too frazzled to find and absorb adequate information. That leaves you vulnerable to rip-offs and overspending, not to mention emotional and physical upheaval.

To those deer-in-the-headlights faces I saw in the audience, and to those of you out there who may be reading and itching, I offer these words of reassurance: An infestation can seem endless and unremitting, but it is in fact temporary.

The bugs may bite, but they won't hurt you unless you are so allergic that it prompts an extreme reaction. But that is exceedingly rare. So relax and let them bite as they crawl over the poison to their dinner, and their doom. They will soon bite it themselves.

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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