Bed bugs are a nightmare. If you’ve never had them, it’s impossible to understand just how much they affect you—not just physically, but emotionally. No matter what you do, they keep coming and keep biting. So how can you actually stop them?
You can prevent bed bugs from reaching you, e.g., with pajamas and mattress encasements. You can deter and repel them by using substances and sprays that they don’t like. Or you can kill them with heat which is the best way of stopping them from biting.
The biggest problem people encounter when finding out how to stop bed bugs is the sheer amount of pseudoscientific nonsense that many bloggers and even pest controllers suggest. Below, every suggestion we’ve made is backed up by real scientific study—so you can rest assured that these methods really work.
Table of Contents:
Why Do Bed Bugs Only Bite Me?
Bed bugs seem to have a habit of biting some people more than others. You might wake up covered in bites, while your partner, who was sleeping next to you, looks completely untouched. What gives? Why do bed bugs prefer to bite certain people?
It’s largely a myth. The truth is that some people have stronger reactions to bed bugs than others. So, while their bites might swell up and itch terribly, other people will hardly react at all.
That’s why you might be covered from head to toe in itchy red bites, while your partner looks untouched. They have been bitten; it’s just that you can’t see the bites.
But there is some truth to the idea that bed bugs prefer biting some people more than others. Have you ever read the fact that mosquitoes prefer some people’s’ blood to others? Bed bugs are similar. It’s been shown that they have a small preference for the blood type they were raised on.
So, a bed bug that’s accustomed to type O blood would prefer feeding from somebody with that same blood type over somebody that doesn’t. However, this effect isn’t absolute. A bed bug will happily feed on a different blood type once they get used to you.
What Attracts Bed Bugs to Bite You?
Bed bugs are attracted by many things that you might not expect. And aren’t tempted by certain things that you probably think they are. So, what helps bed bugs find you?
- Carbon dioxide. Humans and other animals naturally breathe out carbon dioxide, because it’s created through natural bodily processes. The air around a sleeping animal is, therefore, higher in carbon dioxide and lower in oxygen than the rest of the air in the room. A bed bug can sense that, and will be drawn towards anywhere that fits that description.
- Heat. Whether you’re in bed or not, you’re naturally much warmer than your surroundings. All warm-blooded animals are, because our organs need to be at a certain warm temperature to operate properly. If a bed bug senses that the air in a particular location is high in carbon dioxide, but is also warmer than the rest of the room, they know they’re on the right track.
- Human scents and pheromones. Humans naturally give off specific pheromones and scents, which to a trained predator, can give away your position. Bed bugs have learned what people smell like, and will naturally be drawn to anybody (or anybody!) they can find.
There are many ways to prevent bed bugs from biting you at night. The first is to confuse them, so that they can’t detect any of the lures listed above. The second is to physically prevent them from being able to reach you, try as they might. The third is the simplest: killing them.
How Many Bed Bug Bites Per Night?
The number of bed bug bites you’re getting per night is a good indicator of how large your infestation is. If you get just one bite every few days, then you might only have one bed bug in your mattress. Bed bugs tend to feed once every week or so, but will feed more frequently in warmer weather, because it speeds up their metabolism.
- If you’re bitten every night, then your infestation might number between 5 and 10 bed bugs. These bed bugs will most likely congregate in one place each night (their ‘harborage’) rather than being spread throughout the room.
- If you have three or more bites each night, then your infestation will be 30 or more bed bugs. At this point, it’s likely that there will be more than one source for the bed bugs in your room: some might be under your mattress, while others are under nearby furniture.
- Any more bites than this and it’s unclear how many bed bugs are infesting your room.
Bear in mind that during cold weather, an infestation of a hundred bed bugs or more might hardly bite you at all. By contrast, just two or three bed bugs will feed far more frequently during the summer. So, bed bugs prefer warm weather.
If you’re only getting one or two bites every now and then, that’s a fantastic sign. It means that the infestation is manageable. Maybe there are just two or three bed bugs; or perhaps it’s too cold or too dry for them to feed, digest and mate effectively. This means it’s much easier to stop them from biting, and to get rid of them altogether.
Bed Bug Bite Prevention
Preventing bites is important, if to give yourself a little respite as you try and deal with your bed bug infestation. No doubt you’ve tried a few things already—but what works, and what doesn’t? Let’s find out.
Sleep Under Layers of Sheets and Comforters
Bed bugs can’t bite through plastics, fabrics, or anything else. All they can bite are open patches of skin. By wrapping yourself in sheets and comforters, you make it so that the bed bug can’t get to your skin in the first place.
Now, this might be uncomfortable in the heat of summer. If so, you could always try turning the air conditioning up a bit. Alternatively, you could use thinner sheets, so that they don’t keep you warm, but they do keep you wrapped up.
The same applies to the mattress: the more sheets it has on it, the more difficult it will be for the bed bugs to get to you, especially if they’re elasticated sheets.
The idea here is to physically prevent the bed bugs from being able to reach you.
Unfortunately, this won’t kill them, because they can survive for long periods without feeding (up to a year, if you can believe that). However, it will reduce the number of bites you get each night.
Regularly Wash Your Sheets and Pillows
Something else that will lessen the number of bites is to wash your bedding regularly. Putting a bed bug through a washing cycle will kill them—so, any bed bugs caught up in your bedding when you wash it will be killed. To wash your bedding, follow the following guidelines:
- Take the bedding and bag it up securely in a large plastic bag.
- Take the bag through to the laundry room, and place it inside the drum of the washing machine.
- Open the bag while in the machine, and shake out the bedding from inside.
- Tie the bag up again, and put it in a garbage can outside.
The point of this procedure—rather than just picking up the bedding and taking it straight to the machine—is to stop any bed bugs from being spread around your house.
If you were to carry the bedding through the hall, for example, they might scatter and hide in the carpet. If you were to leave the bedding in a laundry basket, there’s a chance they could end up who-knows-where. Far better is to take the bedding straight to the washing machine.
Also, just the act of changing your bedding is enough to make a bed bug’s life less comfortable. By changing the bedding, you’re disturbing their harborage, forcing them to scatter.
At this point, you can use one of the many methods below (sprays, for example) to kill any bed bugs you can see. The alternative is to rarely change your bedding, allowing the bed bugs to feed, digest, mate and lay eggs in peace. We’re sure you can figure out which they’d prefer.
Wear Pajamas to Stop Bed Bugs
Pajamas can help prevent bites, at least to an extent. The easier your skin is to access, the easier it is for them to bite you.
By wearing pajamas, you make it a little more difficult for them to access their preferred feeding sites. For best results, wear pajamas with long legs and long sleeves to cover up as much of your skin as possible.
You should also wear socks with pajamas, and roll the socks up over the leg. This will stop them from getting in that way.
Tuck the pajama shirt into the elastic waist of the pants, so that they can’t get in that way, either. All of this is to make it as hard as possible for them, so they have to work to get to your skin.
Of course, this isn’t going to stop them from biting completely. But it is going to mean you’re bitten less. However, be aware that they’ll choose to feed on any open patch of skin they can find.
So, if you wear pajamas, be prepared for the bed bugs to bite your neck and shoulders instead. To counter this, you could try applying some of the sprays or other deterrents we suggest below to these areas.
Probably the easiest way to reduce the number of bites you get is vacuuming your mattress. Being vacuumed up doesn’t kill a bed bug, and it doesn’t get rid of all of them, since they’re so good at hiding.
But if you’re living with a massive infestation, then quickly flipping the mattress and vacuuming up as many bed bugs as you can is a good idea.
We recommend using the attachments you get with your vacuum cleaner. Use the one that’s designed to fit into narrow cracks and gaps, so that you can aim the vacuum cleaner better.
You should avoid using the extension with a brush on it, because if you brush them out of their hiding place, it’s more likely that they’ll escape than you’ll get them.
For best results, you should vacuum the mattress frequently. The idea is to vacuum up all the adults, because juveniles can’t breed anyway. As new eggs hatch and the bed bugs grow, you should aim to vacuum them before they reach adulthood.
By vacuuming every week, you will stop the majority of bed bugs ever reaching the point where they might be able to breed.
It’s also vitally important that you empty the vacuum cleaner bag once you’re done. For starters, they don’t die when they’re vacuumed up.
There’s no guarantee that the bed bugs can’t get out by climbing back up the hose again, and coming back to pester you. A great alternative to vacuum cleaning is to use a steam cleaner, which we’ll talk about later.
Mattress or Box Spring Encasement
A mattress encasement is a big bag that zips around your mattress. It’s completely airtight once it’s zipped up, which means that the bed bugs in your mattress can’t get you anymore.
Unfortunately, it still takes them a year or longer to die, because they can live for a very long time without feeding.
However, keep the zipper shut, and it doesn’t matter if it takes that long anyway. If your infestation is isolated to your mattress, then this would prevent every single bite you might otherwise get.
The other great thing about having a mattress encasement is that it means any new bed bugs won’t be able to start up a new infestation.
They can hide underneath nearby furniture rather than under the mattress, of course, but in combination with traps around the feet of your bed they wouldn’t be able to climb up.
You can also buy encasements that fit over your box spring. If you didn’t know, the box spring is the wooden frame that sits underneath the mattress.
It’s usually covered at least on top by a sheet of cloth, and often has wheels so that you can move it around. You can buy an encasement for this if there are bed bugs in here, too.
Avoid Sleeping on the Sofa
If your bed bug infestation is bad enough, then the chances are that there might be some bed bugs in your sofa already. If there are, then you’re just going to get bitten anyway. But what if you check beforehand, and you’re confident that there aren’t any?
If the sofa’s free and clear, it’s an even worse idea to try sleeping there. Why? Because you might bring the bed bugs with you. Bed bugs are natural explorers: they can make their way through walls and ceilings, scuttle across hallways and under doors, and even hide on public transport.
If you bring just one or two bed bugs with you to the sofa, then they might start a breeding population there, too. And that’s the last thing you want.
The same thing applies to sleeping in other bedrooms in your home. If anything, this is worse, because each bed you sleep in will likely end up infested too.
Instead, you should stay in the same room, but use the methods described above and below to get rid of bed bugs fast, and prevent them from being able to reach you.
Does Leaving the Light on Deter Bed Bugs?
Bed bugs are known to prefer dark conditions. Shine a light on them, and they’ll scatter just as fast as they can. This has led people to believe that leaving the light on when you go to sleep might stop them from coming it. But is it true?
No, it’s not: it’s a complete myth that leaving the light on will stop bed bugs from biting. Bed bugs are attracted to many things, including heat, carbon dioxide and the natural smells we give off in our sweat. It is true that bed bugs prefer to come out at night.
And it’s also true that if you were to flip the mattress, they’re hiding under, they would immediately try and find a different safe and dark place to hide.
However, leaving the light on does nothing to stop them from searching you out. For starters, it’s daylight and bright lights that they don’t like.
A small bedside lamp won’t be enough to stop them. Even if you were to sleep with bright lights on—and maybe with a sleep mask on to block it out for yourself—it’s not clear that this would actually help.
A bed bug that crawls up from underneath your mattress, and gets under the sheets to find you, wouldn’t even see the light anyway. Give it a go, and there’s a small chance that it might have an effect.
How to Prevent Bed Bug Bites Naturally
There are natural insecticides that bed bugs hate. Their ‘public enemy number one’ is probably tea tree oil, which is naturally antiseptic, antifungal and insecticidal.
That’s because it’s toxic on contact (which is why many people will get a rash if they apply tea tree oil neat). Bed bugs are no exception.
So, to stop bed bug bites in particular places, you could spray yourself with a small amount of oil each night. Let’s say you follow the advice about pajamas above. Well, even the best pajamas will leave some patches of skin: the collarbone, the neck, the face, and the hands.
Before you go to bed, you could spray yourself with a tea tree oil solution in each area of open skin, and see if it makes a difference. To make a bed bug repellent (homemade):
- The finer the mist, the better the results will be. You want a nice, even spread across your skin. Bear this in mind when you’re choosing your spray bottle.
- Dilute the oil, either in water, or in another oil. Which you choose is up to you, and doesn’t matter for this purpose—but what is essential is that you dilute it with something. As we said, tea tree oil is known to cause rashes.
- If you do use water, shake the bottle up before each time you spray. Water and oil don’t mix, unless you use some chemical or other to force them. One common household product that will do that for you is dish soap: mix in a drop as you’re making your spray and the oil should disperse in the water. Pick one that smells nice, so that you don’t smell like a cleaning product yourself.
As a note, this probably won’t work with products that contain tea tree oil. Many of these are likely to have a synthetic scent rather than real tea tree oil in them, so, obviously, they won’t work.
And even if they do contain real oil, it’s likely that there won’t be a high enough concentration in there. Pick a real tea tree oil for your sprays.
Vicks VapoRub for Bed Bugs
Vicks VapoRub contains several oils: camphor, eucalyptus oil, menthol, cedarleaf oil, nutmeg, thymol, and even turpentine oil. These each contributes to its unique and distinctive scent.
The active ingredients in Vicks VapoRub are supposed to help open your airways, suppress coughs and reduce pain where they’re applied; but VapoRub also has several other purported uses, including:
- Reducing stretch marks
- Fading bruises
- Treating earache
And, most importantly for us, repelling insects. But is it true? At the risk of disappointing you with a non-answer, it’s still not clear whether it repels bed bugs or not.
There are many people dotted across several online forums that claim it’s effective, but there are just as many that say it doesn’t work for them. If you do want to give it a go, it can’t possibly hurt. Apply it to open patches of skin before you sleep to see if it has any effect for you.
Clean Up Your Room
Bed bugs love rooms that are cluttered and untidy. The more mess that’s on the floor, the better it is for a bed bug. Why? Because bed bugs like to hide under things.
If you’ve left lots of clothes on the floor near your bed, they can actually hide underneath these when they aren’t feeding. This is bad for two reasons:
- You want the bed bugs to have a few hiding places. Ideally, you want to isolate them, so that when you start to kill them off, they’ll be easier to kill all at once.
- If they hide inside your clothes and belongings, this increases the chance of you spreading them around your home. It even increases your chances of distributing them to your car, to your place of work, to your gym, or anywhere else that they might be able to find other hosts.
Now, all of this isn’t to say that bed bugs love dirt; they don’t. It’s a myth that bed bugs prefer living in dirty homes, or somehow prefer infesting poor people’s homes rather than rich people’s homes. However, what they do like is for your bedroom, specifically, to be messy.
Use a Steam Machine to Repel and Kill Bed Bugs
According to a paper in Pest Management Science, steam machines use a combination of moisture and high heat to kill and repel bed bugs. Bed bugs like humid conditions, but only to an extent. They don’t like anywhere that’s too humid. Of course, they also don’t like the heat.
A short, sharp burst of heat won’t be enough to kill them, but it will be enough to force them to scatter. To use a steam machine effectively, you should:
- Move your furniture outdoors, so that when the bed bugs scatter, they will scatter outside.
- Flip your furniture upside down so that you can see the underneath. This is where any bed bugs might be hiding.
- Make several passes over your furniture using the steam machine. In particular, pay attention to cracks and crevices where they might be hiding.
This works on furniture, but it can work on mattresses too. If you want to steam clean your mattress, it’s best to do it like this:
- Buy a mattress encasement and put it on your mattress before you take it outside. This will stop the bed bugs from scattering around your home as you move it.
- Take the mattress outside, and remove the mattress encasement.
- Steam clean the mattress. Make sure to spray the piping around the edge of the mattress, especially, as this is where they like to hide. If there are holes in the mattress, this might suggest that there are bed bugs actually inside it; if that’s the case, spray the entire mattress.
- Give the mattress a wipe down with a damp cloth to get rid of any feces, shells or dirt before putting the mattress back inside the encasement. Then, take it back inside.
They also help to clean any area that’s been affected by them. It’s important to wipe away the scent of bed bugs, because bed bugs use scent to communicate and find their way around. For example, they use a particular scent to mark the location of their harborage, i.e., their favorite home.
They also use scents to mark their trails, so they can find their way around. And when they’re scared, they’ll release a unique scent that acts as a warning to other bed bugs that there’s a threat nearby. That’s how steam machines actually perform a dual function.
Repelling Bed Bugs
It’s not a good idea to try repelling bed bugs. Of course, it’s better than being bitten; almost anything is better than being bitten by bed bugs.
But there’s a major problem with repelling bed bugs. You aren’t getting rid of them. They aren’t going to run scared, or move out. They’re just going to head somewhere else.
So, for example, let’s say you tried spreading a little Vicks VapoRub on a bed bug harborage underneath your mattress. Well, it may or may not cause them to scatter.
But if they do scatter, what do you think they’re going to do? Well, they’ll set up shop on the other side of the mattress. To deal with your bed bug problem, you have to try to kill every single one.
How to Get Rid of Bed Bugs
Far better than trying to prevent bites is to kill the bed bugs themselves. There are dozens upon dozens of products that claim to be the best for killing bed bugs.
Kill Bed Bugs with Sprays
To kill bed bugs, you can use the essential oil spray that you made earlier. Flip the mattress to expose their harborage, and get to work spraying them.
Tea tree oil and tea tree oil sprays work on direct contact, so if you can directly hit any bed bugs, they’re likely to die. Tea tree oil has a nicer smell than rubbing alcohol and far less flammable.
Alternatively, you could pick one of many commercially available sprays. These have been formulated using the most insecticidal essential oils plus other ingredients to ensure a high kill rate (as high as 90% in some cases).
These, too, are natural and effective but they can also be quite expensive. However, if you’re thinking of spraying something like this on your skin, make sure to read the label first. Insecticides aren’t made for you to spray onto your skin.
Rubbing alcohol does kill bed bugs, but it has drawbacks. The most important is that it’s highly flammable. If you apply spray after spray, week after week, your mattress or furniture will become more and more flammable over time.
There have been cases of house and apartment fires caused by people using rubbing alcohol as a bed bug spray. That’s why we advise something safer.
Pay for an Exterminator
In times gone by, exterminators managed almost completely to eradicate bed bugs from the United States. They were practically unheard of for a few decades, and when they did rear their ugly heads, exterminators would use DDT and other similarly harmful pesticides to kill them. Unfortunately, the bed bugs grew immune to DDT.
The best treatment for bed bugs available from an exterminator is heat treatment. Heat treatment is where the entire house is heated to about 120 degrees, at least.
At this heat, bed bugs quickly start to dry up and die. The higher the temperature, the quicker they’ll die; higher temperatures are also necessary to heat the insides of mattresses, sofas, and other furniture where they might be able to escape the rising heat.
Heat treatment costs more than regular bed bug spraying, but it’s worth it, because it works.
Diatomaceous earth is a kind of ground-up rock. It’s a powder that can feel rough, but soft, to the touch. But to a bed bug, diatomaceous earth is the last thing they’d want to encounter.
The individual granules of diatomaceous earth might be tiny, but look at them through a microscope, and you’d see that they’re sharp for their size.
When a bed bug walks through diatomaceous earth, it scratches away at the waxy outermost layer of their shell. This outer layer is crucial for a bed bug. It stops them from getting dehydrated, by preventing moisture from evaporating from their shell.
But without this outer layer, they’ll very quickly dry out. This is made worse by the fact that the diatomaceous earth itself is highly absorbent, so it almost sucks the bed bug’s moisture through its shell.
Aside from killing bed bugs, it also stops them from being able to move around as they’d like to. Bed bugs are clever enough to be able to avoid toxic or otherwise harmful substances, including diatomaceous earth.
This means you can use it as part of a clever strategy to kill them, or at least stop them from feeding: place small piles of the stuff around each of the legs of your bed.
If you already have an encasement, this will prevent the other bed bugs from around the room being able to reach you without coming through the diatomaceous earth first.
Bed Bug Traps and Lures
Bed bug traps and lures will stop as many bugs from being able to bite you each night. They won’t completely kill all the bed bugs infesting your home, but they can make them easier to live with.
Bed bug traps are small containers that bed bugs can climb into, but can’t climb out of. They’re typically made of plastic, but could be made of anything smooth enough that they would struggle to get out of.
They also often have water in them: bed bugs can’t swim, and quickly drown in just a little bit of water. So they double as bed bug bite prevention, and bed bug killing method.
Bed bug lures go an extra step. According to a paper in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, they’re similar to traps, but they actively draw bed bugs in.
Bed bugs are attracted to heat, carbon dioxide, and the smell of people. Lures typically use carbon dioxide and warmth to ‘pretend’ that they’re a person.
The bed bug will climb in, just like they will with a trap, and won’t be able to get out. Again, there’s often water inside that they’ll drown in.
Lures are best for stopping bed bugs from biting you while you’re sleeping. They stop bed bugs from coming to you—they’ll go to the lure instead.
Don’t Buy a New Mattress
If you’re trying to kill your bed bug infestation, the thought will no doubt cross your mind: what if I just got rid of my mattress, and started fresh? Getting a new mattress only makes sense on the surface, because it’s worse than useless in reality. Here’s why.
- If you buy a mattress encasement, it doesn’t matter how infested the mattress itself is. The bed bugs won’t be able to get to you. Since a mattress encasement is much cheaper than buying a new mattress to fit it on, it doesn’t make sense to pay for the new mattress itself.
- If you were to buy a new mattress, sure, you would be getting rid of a big part of the infestation. But within a few weeks, the bed bugs would come back. Bed bugs don’t just live in mattresses, but in walls, in electrical outlets, underneath furniture, in bed frames and box springs. Anywhere you can think, they can live there. These bed bugs will re-infest your new mattress as soon as they can walk there.
- By picking up and moving your old mattress, you’ll be helping to spread the bed bugs through your house. As you pick it up and move it, they’ll almost all try and scatter: finding somewhere new that’s safe to hide. By dragging the mattress through the rest of your house, you’re making the problem much worse. You could cover the mattress in a mattress encasement to do so, but buying a new mattress defeats the point of having an encasement anyway.
Far better is to treat the mattress and see if you can decontaminate it. This might seem disgusting, but the alternative is to spread bed bugs around your home, which is a terrible choice.
Don’t Try Freezing Them
Like any insect, bed bugs are susceptible to both heat and cold. That’s why heat treatment is the best way for an exterminator to kill them. But what about the cold?
Will bed bugs die if you leave them outside, or will bed bugs die if you put them in the freezer? They might, but there are two central issues with using temperature to kill bed bugs.
The temperature has to be consistently high or low. It’s the same with any animal. That’s why you can survive for hours or even days in very low temperatures, but you’ll eventually succumb to the cold without shelter.
Eventually, you don’t have enough energy stores left to keep yourself warm. Now, bed bugs are cold-blooded, which means they don’t create their own body heat.
But even so, they can survive for short bursts in cold temperatures. That’s why killing them by leaving them outdoors rarely works, because they can warm up at least a little during the day.
Second, we’re talking genuine temperature extremes. As we said above, exterminators have to heat your home to 120 degrees or more to consistently kill the bed bugs infesting it. The same applies at the other end of the scale, in that you need genuinely extreme cold temperatures to kill a bed bug.
You won’t be able to achieve these extremes with a home freezer. If you live in a freezing part of the country, then there’s a chance it could be low enough to kill bed bugs.
But according to the Journal of Economic Entomology, it has to be at least 8 degrees or lower to kill bed bugs consistently, and of course, it has to stay at or below that temperature for at least a few days.