I Survived Bed Bugs, and You Could Too: A Not-Too-Gross and Useful Story

surviving bed bugs: illustration of a cute bedbug in a bed

Being a mom to a newborn is an anxiety-inducing experience. Will he latch during breastfeeding, is it safe to co-sleep, is he warm enough, is he going to fall off the changing table…. I worried about everything during my son’s infancy. What I didn’t think I’d have to worry about was what if an infestation of insects feed on his blood while he sleeps?

The day I discovered my son’s bassinet was crawling with bed bugs began like any other, with me waking up, feeding and burping him, and then after a short stint of cooing, settling him back into his bassinet, which my husband and I had set up next to our bed. When I pulled the accordion-folded cover down to shade my son from light, I noticed a dark spot, which upon closer inspection revealed a silver dollar-sized swarm of deep brown bugs and black fabric stains.

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Reader, I screamed. I screamed and ran into the living room, where I screamed some more. My mother, who was visiting to help with the baby, tried to calm me, and my husband ran over. “Bugs in the baby’s bed!” I stammered. My mom and my husband tried to quiet me, telling me that it was fine, we’d just clean whatever it was up, but I would have none of their soothing. I knew these were bed bugs, and they were responsible for the little marks I’d just noticed across the bridge of my son’s nose. I also knew they weren’t going to be easy to get rid of.

This was 15 years ago, and I thought of that time recently, when reports surfaced that fashion show attendees were discovering bedbugs all over Paris and hotel guests throughout Las Vegas were reporting sightings as well. Unfortunately, it appears bed bugs are back in the center of public discourse, and while I’ve tried to black out most of the details from that time—along with memories of home renovations and actual childbirth—I wanted to communicate a message of hope to anyone who is worried about bed bugs today.

And that message is: You’ll want to die, but that’s not an option, so be prepared to throw all of your available time and money at the problem and you’ll make it through. I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s a profound psychological stressor, causing what one Montreal-based study deemed a “risk of experiencing sleep disturbance and of developing symptoms of anxiety and possibly depression.”

Seriously, it was that bad. Part of the initial fear was not knowing what to do next. Trying to figure out how to eradicate those little critters was daunting. First, my learnings: Bed bugs can hitch a ride on luggage or jump on your handbag to come home with you, and they don’t need a dirty home to thrive in. They just need human blood, which they detect via nighttime carbon dioxide emissions, which helps them find sleeping humans to inject their stingers into. Their stingers contain an anesthetic, which dulls the pain of their multiple bites. (One way to determine you’ve got bed bug bites rather than, say, flea bites is the little bumps appear in threes, nicknamed “breakfast, lunch and dinner” by someone with a sadistic wit.) I remember one story suggesting that bedbugs were as close to evolutionarily perfect as possible, since they spent all their time “feeding and f*cking.”

I mean, how many personal crises can you look back on and say, glass-half-full-style, “At least we didn’t have to kill the dog”? (According to Terminix, bedbugs don’t prefer canine blood, though they will burrow right into Fido’s bedding.)

surviving bed bugs mattress

Sanja Djordjevic/Getty Images

So how did I get rid of the bed bugs? We threw away the bassinet, of course, and washed everything we could in scalding water, then dried it all in a superhot dryer. We weren’t sure if the bugs had gotten into our linen closets, so that meant pulling everything out to launder. Then, there were the non-machine-washable clothes, which all had to be dry cleaned. The final bill for all of this ended up costing us thousands. We hired an exterminator service that purported to specialize in bed bug eradication. The service deployed a gentleman who came to our co-op to ever-so-slowly look for signs of the bugs on every seam in the house—couch, throw pillows, mattresses. This took days, and by then, we’d noticed bites on our upper arms. Friends took our family in while the apartment was being bombed, which now that I look back on it, was quite a testament of faith and friendship, since we all needed to trust that we weren’t bringing bedbugs to their homes.

And here’s the cruel joke: We eliminated them for a time, only to have them come back a few months later. It turned out the bugs were shuttling between residences in our building. Ultimately, our co-op board insisted on having one neighbor’s infested apartment being treated, and we scrupulously applied food-grade diatomaceous earth around the floorboard in that part of our domicile so that it would kill any bugs that toddled across. (Diatomaceous earth is a microscopic powder made of fossils that cuts through the exoskeleton of a bedbug, desiccating it.)

All in all, this debacle lasted for a year and a half. I recall spending entire weekends doing laundry and vacuuming upholstered furniture, then racing to take the vacuum bags out of the apartment. (The cost of combatting the bugs has Paris bureaucrats lobbying for adding bedbug coverage to mandatory homeowner insurance.) Other methods of eradicating the bugs, I’ve learned, include heating and freezing an entire apartment for an extended period and detection via sniffer dog. I’d consider trying some of these tactics now, since according to Chow-Yang Lee, a professor of urban entomology at the University of California Riverside, bedbugs have evolved to be resistant to pesticides that used to combat them, and are able to survive desiccation via diatomaceous earth.

Anyway, as a veteran of the bed bug battles, let me leave you with my own precautions against getting them in the first place:

  • Don’t bring any vintage furniture or textiles into your home without inspecting them for bedbugs or heat-treating them first.
  • When you check into a hotel room, immediately check the top of the mattress and underneath the bottom sheets for any brown smears or, heaven help you, bugs in the seams of the mattress.
  • Don’t unpack your clothes in a hotel room since the little guys might be hiding in the bureau or closet—instead keep your suitcase in the tile-clad bathroom.
  • Sorry to all my fellow readers, but don’t check out a public library book, or if you must, seal it in a plastic bag and put it in the freezer for two days to kill any bugs. Better yet, borrow e-books.

And if you do run across a bug somewhere, calmly take a picture of it before you walk away as quickly as possible. You’ll need that photo to explain all the screaming later.

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dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...