Getting rid of bed bugs can be a hassle, and it doesn’t get any easier once you realize how many different ways there are to treat them.
Unfortunately for us bed bugs are a notoriously resilient pest. This means that entomologists, pest management professionals (PMPs) and research experts are constantly trying to find new ways to effectively get rid of the bugs.
The good news is that this means there are many new treatments being tried and tested to kill the pests, the bad news is that it means choosing a PMP to solve your problem isn’t as easy as it would appear at first glance.
First we should identify the different kinds of treatments for bed bugs.
There are three main categories when it comes to bed bug treatments: Chemical, heat, and fumigant. But there are different kinds of treatments within each category and each kind of treatment has a differing level of effectiveness based upon the type of residence you live in.
The most common type of treatment, by far, is chemical. With nearly 90% of PMPs using at a minimum some form of chemical treatment you can expect to hear about chemical treatments when you call someone about your bed bug problem.
But what kind of chemicals and how effective can they be?
Despite how common chemical treatments are in the US the variety of chemicals used has a pretty big range. The most common chemical used are pyrethrin pesticides.
These chemicals are able to kill most bed bugs over time if they are sprayed in direct contact. Pyrethrins are common because not only do they have a pretty high kill rate but they also cause bed bugs to lose their appetite before they die.
The bugs may not die immediately, but if the spray connects with a bug it’s going to die eventually, and it won’t be biting you in the meantime. One limitation of pyrethrins is that they have little to no ‘residual effect’. Residual effect, in this context, means the effectiveness over time.
A pyrethrin sprayed on an absorbent surface, such as carpet, is only useful for about five minutes. After that the pesticide will be absorbed and bugs can safely walk across the carpet without any concern of being affected by the chemical.
Combine this limitation with the fact that bed bugs like to hide (link) and you can see the limitations of sprays. They take a while to actually kill, you have to make direct contact with the bugs, and you can’t be sure you’ve actually sprayed the entire infestation.
Chemical treatments generally take the course of six to eight weeks with the PMP coming back out to retreat every other week or so just to ensure they actually made contact with the entire population of bed bugs.
One second, and emerging, area of chemical treatments are flash freezes.
Some PMPs and entomologists have developed chemicals that can freeze the bugs on contact with varying degrees of success in killing the bugs once frozen.
These products tend to be safer around people and pets compared to the more common pyrethrins; but also share many of the same pitfalls. Since freezing has to be done on contact you can expect a similar level of re-treatment as with pyrethrins.
Freezing likewise has no residual effect which means it’s not very good at stopping bugs that aren’t found the first time.
Lastly, the effectiveness of freezing treatments is pretty widely disputed. While I do not overall recommend against freezing chemicals know that the academic testing and field testing has shown both that treatments are successful in killing bugs and that bugs eventually thaw out and continue on with their lives.
The second category of treatment is concentrated heat treatment. Bed bugs and their eggs are known to die upon reaching a temperature of 112.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
Heat treatments are used to help apartments or homes to reach internal temperatures between 130 and 165 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure that bugs in the walls, or under the carpet matting will still reach a sufficiently warm temperature to die. Heat treatments are the most effective treatment by cost for sure.
Heat treatments generally speaking are both more expensive than chemical treatments and more immediate.
Heat treatments work the day of treatment, and the equipment required for a proper heat treatment can be pretty expensive so you pay for immediacy and certainty. One thing to know is that bed bugs can essentially hibernate when they start to experience temperature changes which can cool down their internal temperatures.
So heat treatments tend to be ‘flash’ heat rather than gradual over time. You want to reach your target temperatures in under an hour that way the bugs don’t have time to hunker down and survive.
One major downside to heat treatments is that it requires the most prep work for you, as a victim.
Heat is only effective if it can penetrate all possible areas. If you have a stack of clothing laid on the floor, or some blankets piled up, the room may reach 130 degrees, but the middle of the clothes most certainly did not. In our early experience heat treating an apartment we accidentally heated the room up so hot that it literally melted a TV that was hanging on the wall.
Even worse than that, after our treatment we spotted five bugs crawling out of a pile of dirty laundry that was in the same room as the melted TV!
The buggers are persistent, so dealing with clutter and adequate prep-work is necessary for an effective heat treatment.
The final option available to you as a victim is fumigation. In-house we refer to fumigation as ‘the nuclear option’ because it really should be a measure of last resort.
Fumigation is expensive, time consuming, and leaves you without a place to stay for roughly forty-eight hours. Fumigation is the option you choose when everything else has failed you and the bugs are such a nightmare that you’re considering burning down your house just to be rid of them.
While nothing in life is certain, and especially when it comes to bed bugs, fumigation is as certain as you can get.
We have no reports of fumigation failing to kill bed bugs. However, we have had reports of careless home owners being re-infested by bed bugs because they didn’t realize that the things they took with them when they left the house that was being fumigated were already infected with bed bugs.
Taking an infested suitcase out and back into your home can render fumigation worthless.
We hope this quick guide to extermination options helps you make a more informed decision when dealing with your bed bug problem. Here at the Bed Bug Adviser our goal is to help make sure that you sleep tight tonight.