I Had Bedbugs—Here’s How I Learned to Feel Safe at Home After, and What Pros Advise

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Credit: Laura Hoerner

You know that old saying, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite? I remember putting a little girl to sleep during my babysitting years with that seemingly innocent rhyme. (She responded: “We don’t have bedbugs!”) But after experiencing the tiny demons myself, that commonplace utterance has taken on a whole new meaning. 

Toward the end of 2015, bedbugs made me uproot my home life and reconsider my living situation entirely. I left the infestation behind—and way too many of my belongings—in Washington Heights mid-treatment and moved to Brooklyn. But when I realized the mental health effects had followed me (though not the bedbugs, thankfully) my cat and I flew across the country to live with my mom indefinitely. I ended up returning after only two months, and now, years later, I finally feel safe again in my current apartment back in New York. But it took all that time—and obsessive laundering and the purchase of a bedbug-zapping machine—to get here.

I’ve had enough acquaintances and friends who’ve also gotten bedbugs to know that I couldn’t possibly be alone in feeling like my relationship to my space was forever changed. I reached out to a few people with similar experiences, as well as a certified insect expert, to find out the best ways to heal in a post-bedbug world—and the steps to take to avoid infestations from happening in the first place.

Regular laundry—and a purge of your belongings—can help you feel safe

Anna lives in Providence, RI, right now, but she encountered the dreaded bedbugs when living in Brooklyn. At first, when her roommate was showing signs of bites, she couldn’t believe it. But once the realization fully dawned on her, her home no longer felt like a home. “I never wanted to be there. I was afraid I would carry a bug with me,” she says. To alleviate some of the anxiety, Anna “got rid of everything and placed what I could in storage.” She also relied on the high heat of two-hour dryer runs to kill any bugs in her clothes. Since then, she’s become her social circle’s go-to bedbug pro: “I got bedbugs many years ago, but it’s definitely helped me advise friends who had them,” she says. (Kind of an upside to the experience?)

Investing in monitors can improve your peace of mind

Native New Yorker Brendan says his bedbug experience felt very “violating”. “It definitely impacted my sense of safety and security in my home,” he says. In an effort to regain some semblance of ownership over what happened in his apartment, he bought passive bedbug monitors and started doing laundry more often. “Even though these things don’t totally eliminate the odds of getting anything,” he explains, “They definitely made me feel more in control and secure.” Now, since getting a handle on the issue, he feels much more appreciation for his (infestation-free) home. Three-and-a-half years after bedbugs, he’s only now moving out.

Adopting new habits can prevent future issues

Jennifer, another New Yorker, had the very unfortunate experience of getting bedbugs twice in the same apartment. The first time was scary, but she says the second time was “unbearable.” “My landlord accused me of hoarding, said it was my fault they were back, and refused to pay for treatment,” she explains. After a very “messy” battle involving lawyers, “In the end, he agreed to pay for my treatment and I agreed to GTFO.” Jennifer purchased cases for her mattress and pillows and threw out many of her belongings, but the biggest change she made was moving to a new apartment after treatment. “My current home is a safe haven for me,” she says. 

Protective covers and extra vigilance can make it easier to get shut-eye

Chelle had her run-in with bedbugs in a place that was supposed to be the safest one of all—her parents’ house. A family friend had stayed in Chelle’s old room before she moved back home and had left the infestation behind. But even after they had gotten rid of the mattress and the bugs, Chelle still felt uncomfortable. “I barely wanted to sleep in the house after that, but I was also scared to sleep anywhere else for fear the bugs had jumped onto me and would lodge themselves into someone else’s bed,” she says. Now that she’s back in her own space, she continues to be “extra vigilant”. “I absolutely use the protective mattress cover in every bedroom now. I also dried all of my clothes on high heat and stored them in a plastic garbage bag afterwards for about a month, just in case,” she says.

Moving can give you a clean slate (if done smartly)

When Emily got bedbugs, which she calls “one of the worst experiences of my life,” she too stopped feeling safe or comfortable in her own apartment. “Your home is supposed to be a place where you can relax and recharge—and that was out the window,” she says. Not only did she no longer have a place to relax, but the treatment itself was exhausting. “It’s physically taxing to go through all your possessions, throw things out, wash, scrub. It’s a sense that everything is dirty,” she explains. Once treatment was completed by the exterminator and all of her belongings were bug-free, she moved out. Now, she feels positive about her home again.

How to prevent and treat bedbugs, according to an insect pro

Anecdotes can only get us so far, so I reached out to Brittany Campbell, PhD, BCE, a staff entomologist and research scientist with the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), for expert advice. 

According to Dr. Campbell, “Bedbugs are great travelers and will readily hitchhike on people’s belongings.” Though there’s no way to completely mitigate the risk of bringing them into your home, she recommends a few things you can do to be as safe as possible:

  1. Inspect hotels and accommodations: If you’re doing any traveling—even just to visit family—it’s important to be careful. “Don’t throw your suitcase on the bed… until you have done an inspection in a room,” Dr. Campbell says—a thorough one performed with a flashlight in hand. She suggests keeping your suitcase in a large plastic bag, or at least keeping it on a luggage rack once your inspection turns up clear. If you do suspect bedbugs may have hitched a ride in your suitcase, don’t bring it indoors and dry all of your clothing on high heat for at least 20 minutes. “If there is any indication of bedbugs in a hotel room or other travel accommodations,” she says, “Alert staff and change rooms immediately.”
  1. Check secondhand goods for infestation: “Thoroughly inspect any second-hand furniture for the presence of bedbugs, especially box springs or mattresses, before bringing them indoors,” Dr. Campbell says. It’s also worth it to keep an eye on any item you’ve either bought used or traveled with: “Bedbugs can hide in almost any household item,” she explains.
  1. Declutter your home: “The more items in the home, the more hiding places created for bedbugs to seek shelter,” Dr. Campbell explains. But, she warns, if you ever suspect the bugs, listen to a trained professional’s treatment-prep instructions instead of immediately decluttering everything after the fact. “You may just end up spreading bedbugs around the home and worsening the infestation,” she says.
  1. Don’t go the DIY route with bedbug treatment: Though Dr. Campbell recommends buying mattress encasements and bedbug monitors to stay vigilant, it’s important to bring in the professionals if you see signs. “Homeowners should immediately clean bedding, linens, curtains, and clothing in hot water and dry them on the hottest dryer setting, as well as vacuum the area infested,” she says. But after that, “Homeowners should seek assistance from a licensed pest control professional who can properly inspect and treat the home.”

A bug-free home is one of the many factors in making sure your space is a “safe haven.” But if you do ever do face these evil creatures, just know that with treatment and vigilance (and tips from both Dr. Campbell and the five people I chatted with), you can trust that one day you’ll feel safe again. We all did!