So you’ve got bed bugs. Who do you need to tell?

So you've got bed bugs. Who do you need to tell? An infestation etiquette guide
Bedbugs: Not just a game. via Flickr user Mike Mozart

We’ve been talking a lot about bed bugs here at Brokelyn this month (an interview with Brooklyn’s bed bug queen, Brooke Borrel; a first-person account of getting a fancy hotel to pony up for a bed bug extermination), and we have one final important piece of the bed bug puzzle to add today: Who do you tell when you get bed bugs?

A lot of people who’ve had them say that finding out you have bed bugs is like finding out you have an STD. But are we talking HPV or HSV2? Who do you need to tell and why? Are you morally obligated to lock yourself in a clothes dryer until the menace dies down so that you don’t spread the infestation to others? Should you call out of work? Let’s break it down.

Oh crap, I’ve got bed bugs! Do I need to tell my landlord? 

Yes, by all means tell your landlord. They’re legally required to get rid of your bed bugs within 30 days — it’s written into the city’s housing code. The code doesn’t specify how they have to treat your apartment, though, so don’t be surprised if they try to go the discount route.

Bed bug eradication is only as effective as the method (and your follow-up), so try to be as involved in the process as possible if you don’t trust your landlord to make the right decisions. You’ll also likely be required to do all the prep before the exterminator comes (bagging up your clothes, getting rid of clutter, etc.), so plan on doing that yourself, too. FWIW, your landlord is also legally required to provide a one-year bed bug history on your unit and building upon moving in, but you likely have to ask for it.

I still have to go to work though to be able to afford doing all this laundry. Do I have to tell my employer I have bed bugs? 

It’s your call. You have no legal obligation to tell your employer. If you’re treating the situation and are taking all the proper precautions (mostly just not wearing any clothes or carrying any bags to the office that have been exposed to bed bugs), the chance of you actually bringing them to work incredibly small. And if you’re not doing that, then you’re just an asshole and probably not the kind of person who’s considering telling your job because it’s “right thing to do.”

Telling your work can be helpful if you’re taking time off or need some flexibility in your schedule to manage the treatment. But if you’re handling things at home, there’s really no reason to bring it up at the office. Unless you spot a bed bug at work, in which case you should definitely talk to someone so the situation can be addressed.


Having bed bugs can feel real lonely. Here's how to reach out to friends responsibly.  via flickr user Jen Myronuk
Good friends will understand that bed bugs aren’t the end of the world. via flickr user Jen Myronuk

I’m afraid my friends will shun me as an unclean wretch when they find out. Am I obligated to tell my friends about the bed bugs before we hang out? 

So long as you are treating and containing the situation, bed bugs are neither a social death sentence — as much as it may feel that way — nor an airborne disease. Once again, if you are a good person and are making sure you only go out in stuff (clothes, shoes, purses, whatever) that has been washed and dried at high temps and hasn’t been re-exposed to the bed bugs, you should be good.

There’s a good chance that you’ll find yourself spending so much time doing laundry and itching yourself that you’ll be too lazy to go out, but hey, that’s up to you. `

What happens if one of my friends has bed bugs? I want to be a good person but I don’t want to get them. What do I do?

This one’s pretty simple: Act normal. Having bed bugs can be pretty traumatizing, and your friend is probably already feeling like a leper on top of being stressed (“How am I gonna pay for this? Are they REALLY gone?”) and itchy. And your friend will most likely understand that you’re not trying to get infested, too. If they don’t, then you’re allowed to remind them of that — just be gentle. A simple “Look, I love ya and all and let me know what I can do to try and help, but I really can’t risk possibly getting them, you understand” should do.

It may feel safer on your end to visit your friend at their apartment or meet them out rather than invite them to your place, and that’s fine (Gothamist just did a good “Ask a native New Yorker” on whether it’s okay not to invite someone over who has bed bugs but isn’t treating them). If you do go to their house — maybe to help prep for treatment or to just offer moral support (when you have bed bugs, your apartment can kind of feel like jail, so it’s nice to have a visitor) make sure to bring a second set of clothes wrapped in a plastic bag that you can change into before you go home (i.e. in their doorway right before you leave their apartment) and launder the clothes you wore there right away. If you’re really worried, you can do the same thing regardless of where you hang out.

At the end of the day, you you should be able to trust (or at least ask) that your friend is a good person who isn’t doing anything to spread their situation. So stay calm, offer your ear (and maybe a beer or three) and just try and be there for them.

Erin Scottberg once had bed bugs and is now scared of every mosquito bite, ever. Follow her on Twitter at @erins.

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