How Bedbugs Are Treated

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If you have been bitten by bedbugs, the good news is that they aren't associated with any disease. You need only to avoid scratching the bites and getting a skin infection. Anti-itch creams may help. Treating your home or possessions to eliminate an infestation is more of a challenge, and you may need both nonchemical and chemical treatments. Learn how to treat your bites and get rid of bedbugs.

Over-the-Counter Therapies

The treatment of bedbug bites depends on the symptoms and their severity. The bites should heal and disappear in one to two weeks whether you treat them or not. The goal is to prevent scratching the itchy rash, which can lead to a skin infection. You can use over-the-counter (OTC) anti-itch creams such as calamine lotion or those containing diphenhydramine or cortisone. Be sure to read the product label and don't use these creams around the eyes, anus, or genitals.

An OTC antiseptic medication can be used for skin irritation that may then develop into an infection. As a precaution, do not use creams on broken or infected skin. If you have already been scratching, do not use these products on any raw or weeping areas. If you see signs of a skin infection, such as redness, don't use these creams in that area, and call your doctor.

Oral Benadryl (diphenhydramine) can also help reduce the itchiness.

Prescriptions

Zonalon and Prudoxin (doxepin) are topical creams that can be prescribed for relief from itching. The active ingredient in these products is a topical tricyclic antidepressant and seems to work against itching by reducing histamine. Histamines are chemicals your body produces in response to injury or when having an allergic reaction.

A prescription-strength cortisone cream may also help. In some cases, a prescription antihistamine will be given. 

Antibiotics will be prescribed if you developed a skin infection from scratching. Topical Bactroban (mupirocin) may be prescribed or you may be given oral antibiotics. A severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis may be treated with an injection of antihistamine, corticosteroids, or epinephrine.

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

The only way to stop getting bedbug bites is to eradicate them, but it will be difficult and time-consuming. You can try to address the problem yourself, but It is best to enlist a professional pest control service that can use nonchemical and chemical measures. If you are renting, notify your landlord as other units should be inspected and the landlord may be required to assist in the eradication.

Preparing a Room for Treatment

First, there should be a thorough inspection of areas that may be infested to identify bedbugs. Once a room is identified as infested, don't remove anything from the room unless it is sealed in a plastic bag. Furniture and items that you want to discard rather than treat should be bagged and destroyed so other people don't use them.

Call your trash collection agency to arrange for an immediate pickup. Reduce the clutter in the room and discard any cardboard boxes as they can harbor bedbugs. Vacuum the area and seal the vacuum bag in a plastic bag and discard it.

Nonchemical Treatment

Nonchemical treatment means include:

  • Heat treatment: Heat of 120 F for two hours will kill bedbugs. Wash items in hot water (120 F or above). This may not be enough, though, so it's recommended that you place items in a clothes dryer on hot heat for at least 30 minutes. In a hot climate, you can bag items in a black plastic bag and leave them in direct sunlight for 24 hours. For travel or home use, there are portable heating units that can be used for clothing and luggage. A garment steamer can also be used on some items, such as luggage.
  • Cold treatment: Bag items in plastic and freeze (below 0 F) for four days or at 20 F for seven days. Ensure your freezer is set cold enough. If leaving items outdoors to freeze, ensure they are in a dry, shaded area.
  • Barriers: You can purchase bedbug-proof encasement covers for mattresses, box springs, and pillows. Also get bedbug interceptors to place under each leg of the bed or furniture items. These also allow you to see if there are any remaining bedbugs as they get trapped in the double rings of the interceptor disks. Ensure the bed is at least 6 inches from the wall and the bedding doesn't touch the floor.

Chemical Treatment

Chemical treatments are available for consumers as well as professionals. Some sources say the consumer products are not very effective and it is best to use a professional service. Using more than one chemical that attacks bedbugs in a different way can help with eradication.

The chemicals that may be used include:

  • Pyrethrins and pyrethroids: These are the most common compounds used. However, some bedbugs are resistant and using a fogger often doesn't reach bed bugs in crevices.
  • Desiccants: These include diatomaceous earth and boric acid. Because they can be an inhalant risk, they are best used only in crevices. You should only use those that are registered by the EPA and labeled for use against bedbugs.
  • Cold pressed neem oil is registered for use as a biochemical pesticide.
  • Chlorfenapyr is used as a pro-insecticide that disrupts the bug's cells.
  • Neonicotinoids activate nicotine receptors in the bug's nervous system and overstimulates them.
  • Insect growth regulators mimic insect hormones and disrupt their growth.

Prevention

Wearing an insect repellent is not completely effective, although you might try oil of lemon eucalyptus or DEET to prevent bites. Avoid bringing home second-hand items such as used furniture, mattresses, or any item that someone has kept in a bedroom. Unfortunately, bedbugs can linger in items for a year without feeding. Launder all used clothing before storing or wearing it. Use mattress, box spring, and pillow encasements on your bed. Fill in any cracks and crevices in your bedroom.

When traveling, inspect the bedding prior to exposing yourself or your belongings. Seal your dirty clothes in plastic bags. You may even consider encasing your luggage in a plastic bag while you are in a hotel room. Launder your clothing as soon as you get home. You can treat your suitcase by vacuuming, using a clothes steamer, or handwashing it with hot water and soap. You might also consider encasing luggage in a plastic bag between trips.

Coping

Being bitten by bedbugs, whether while traveling or at home, can be distressing. Many people report anxiety, depression, and loss of sleep. Although bedbugs are not associated with poor hygiene, you might be afraid of the stigma. Be sure to take time for stress relief as you deal with a bedbug infestation.

Sources:

Do-It-Yourself Bed Bug Control. United States Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/bedbugs/do-it-yourself-bed-bug-control.

Goddard J, deShazo R. Bed Bugs (Cimex lectularius) and Clinical Consequences of Their BitesJAMA. 2009;301(13):1358-1366.

Kells SA, Hahn J. Prevention and Control of Bed Bugs in Homes. University of Minnesota Extension. https://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/insects/find/bed-bugs-in-residences/.

Studdiford JS, Conniff KM, Trayes KP, Tully AS. Bedbug Infestation. American Family Physician. 2012 Oct 1;86(7):653-658.