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Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
As I contemplate the prospect of moving into a new apartment, in which I will finally have my own space and be able to sort out belongings that I haven't been able to unpack in three years, I look back on my year-plus of bed bug education—what one friend of mine dubbed "field work.” I think, How can I make sure this never happens to me again?
In a sense I'm looking at my next place as a do-over—a chance to go in armed with all the right information about bed bug prevention and awareness and be at least reasonably savvy about avoiding another infestation.
The good news is that, at least according to this story in Slate, the chances of re-infestation are low if you acquired them from some random place. But if the critters are being brought back in by, say, someone who comes in to clean, or by the nanny, and those people are in a building that is not taking care of the problem, it’s a slightly different story.
Those of us who have weathered this most bizarre of experiences come out of it battle-weary but wiser. We do what everyone should be doing to avoid initial infestation, only we have more ammo: We know how to think like a bed bug.
Burned into my brain now, after a year and a half of bed bug freedom, is a firm idea of the measures I will take in my next space, in addition to what I'm doing now out in the world. They are no guarantee, but at least I will be able to take some precautions.
For months after I finished dealing with the infestations, I was paranoid about sitting on the subway. I didn't mind standing, especially since that was about the time a study came out talking about the calorie-burning benefits of standing. All last summer, I stood.
However, this is overkill. In places where the train seats are all cushiony, you might need to think twice. But here in NYC they are plastic, with bed bug–contrasting colors, to boot. A quick glance is all you need—just enough to make sure nothing is crawling around. The chances of that happening are fairly small.
I still do get leery of sitting smushed up against people, especially at this time of year when we're all enveloped in layers of clothing. I do often stand in that case, unless I'm really tired. And those wooden subway-platform seats are still off limits in my brain.
There are many routes for infestation: the library, as a spate of bed bugged books chronicled recently on Bedbugger.com can attest; the movies, whose seats are prime breeding grounds, or at least potential way-stations, for the pests; likewise with coffee shops, restaurants and the like, and public transport. Those are things from our daily lives.
There are also hotels, of course, and friends' houses, if they do not know that they or their neighbors are infested. And don't forget stores, especially vintage retailers.
All those potential vectors aside, there's no need to panic. It's important to keep the threat in perspective: A lot of things would have to happen for you to get infested from any one of these sources, and the chances of each one are not all that high.
First, someone would have to be carrying a hitchhiking bed bug on his or her person, and that individual would need to have a pretty big infestation for a bug to make it out of the house.
Second, a bug that was in, say, the cuff of that person's pants would need to fall out onto your bag or pants leg. Third, for it to start an infestation with you, that bug would need to be a pregnant female, or be paired up in the pants cuff with a potential mate that also traveled.
However, occasionally these factors do all align. I've said this before, though: None of the above scenarios mean that you should become a shut-in, staying out of libraries, movie theaters and off of trains. All they mean is adding a layer of vigilance (not paranoia) to your daily regimen.
Simple steps will reduce the likelihood of your getting bed bugs from the above sources. You can inspect your library books, shake them out outside, or over the library bathroom sink, to make sure nothing falls out. The libraries that were affected by the bugs, well that happened because the bugs were discovered upon inspection. They were not invisible.
When you go to the movies, simply take care with your belongings. Bring a minimum, such as just a pocketbook rather than a bunch of bags, and put it on your lap not the floor. You might want to brush yourself off once you leave, and shake out your coat. It's not a fail-safe, but bed bugs are not the best at clinging to things. They have trouble climbing smooth surfaces, and they shake off pretty easily.
You can also inspect your belongings thoroughly before returning home, scrutinizing every inch of your coat and bags. It's important to remember that this is not the 1940s, when bed bugs were endemic to movie theaters. They are increasing but are not yet that widespread.
While shopping, nowadays I generally put things in the dryer for half an hour before bringing them home. Done on high, this can kill bugs and eggs—again, if anything is even there.
At home I have a passive monitor—a small contraption that serves as an attractive harborage to bed bugs, so helps in early detection, since that may very well be their first stop in one's home—on my bed frame. I also flip my mattress periodically and inspect that and underneath my bed, as well as all around it. Since I bought the same bed as I had when my former apartment was infested the second time, I know exactly where they would live if they were there.
I keep clutter to a minimum, and the things I don't use often I have kept sealed in taped plastic boxes. No need to give bugs a place to hide.
You will note that much of this advice is about discovering bed bugs that may make their way home with you. You might get a hitchhiker despite your best efforts, but the home-inspection precautions will help you find it sooner rather than later, before it has the chance to reproduce and entrench with progeny.
Of course, if neighbors have untreated bed bug infestations, the end of your infestation is more likely an illusion. That's what happened in my case—the bugs were hiding in the walls, and in my non-reactive neighbor's pad, and came out to play again in my place once the insecticide had worn off. If it's an infested, untreated, noncooperative neighbor you're dealing with, then it's another story, because the outcome does not depend on 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.