How to avoid hand-me-down bedbugs

Photo by M. Potter, University of Kentucky.

Earlier this week, when we wrote about couch surfing, a wary reader—the Flatbush Gardener, as it happens—commented with one word: ‘bedbugs.” And that’s one word that strikes fear into most sane people.

Bedbugs are freaking awful. Brooklyn is the bed-buggiest borough, according to BrickUnderground, a site about homeowning in New York City, which got its numbers from the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Bushwick appears to be the hardest hit, with Carroll Gardens the least bitten, an estimate loosely based on bit-up people’s complaints.

They’re also expensive—a typical afflicted family can spend up to $5,000 or more getting rid of the critters, according to The New York Times.

How do I not get them?

The best way to deal with the wretched parasites is prevention, but that’s the kind of advice people give when it’s already too late. Learn paranoia from the bitten: no matter how cool the couch or bed on the street is, just keep walking. Don’t buy a used mattress; go to Ikea for a cheap new one. There’s still risk with hard furniture, but if you spray it with Blackjack, you should be fine. (Yes, Blackjack is toxic, but better a few preventative spritzes on a wooden chair than to have your whole apartment fumigated after an infestation.)

If someone else in your building has them, you’re at risk. Since the little bloodsuckers love cracks and crevices—and use them to travel between apartments—try caulking any openings in your wall, ceiling, floor, and window frames. Once your place is airtight, you’ve blocked off one more avenue for the bugs.

People, animals, and anything fabric act like an omnibus for the critters. That means that friendly couch surfer, your unwashed nephew, or even a well-groomed friend escaping the bugs in her own apartment can carry them onto your mattress, your fabric couch (especially weaves) or your shag rug. So unless you’re a complete anti-social (not a bad idea), you’re at risk.

Agh! I’m itchy—what do I do?

For a bedbug course in one click, the best resource we found was a  University of Kentucky guide, mixing scientific research with informative pictures and tips.

Here’s the quick version: Bedbugs love dust and fuzz, so keep all your surfaces vacuum-clean (and toss the bag). Wash all fabrics at 120 degrees, at least. (Your basic “hot” setting on your washing machine will do.) If your clothes can’t be washed on hot for one reason or another, throw them in the dryer for a while. Even dry-clean-only threads can withstand heat of 160 Fahrenheit (so sayeth the bedbug professor).

During the day, most bedbugs are in hide-and-sleep mode (they hunt at night), so a daytime spraying will get them where they live: window casings, cracks, behind dresser drawers, and even behind electrical outlets—but never spray pesticides on your bed, clothing or on any other fabric.

Landlords have an obligation to act within 30 days of a bedbug complaint, under City’s Housing Maintenance Code and the State’s Multiple Dwelling Law. Call 311 for more info—and to report an unresponsive landlord with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. If you’re a homeowner, 311 also has referrals to exterminators.

Bedbug culture: get bit

As Brooklynites seal their freshly-washed linens in plastic, bedbugs have sealed their fate with that wonderful Brooklyn tradition: blogs. Caryn Solly, a senior editor at, posts about her two experiences with the itchy pests, as well as sharing her hard-won wisdom. You can follow her daily misfortune—sprinkled liberally with profanity (she excuses herself in the prologue)—on her diary.

Other invaluable resources have popped up—like bedbugger, which hosts a wealth of information, from identification and (hopeful) eradication, to how to say “bedbug” in 30 languages. Advocacy group New York vs. Bedbugs released Bed Bugs in New York City: A Citizen’s Guide to the Problem—27 pages of bedbug stats. They have been campaigning for committees and bills, as well as providing a sort of bedbug support group.

Brooklyn the Borough reports the city has established an advisory committee to deal with the bedbug epidemic of recent years. Although they haven’t yet met, we can hope for government grants to help eradicate the pests, like the two bills currently in Congress to provide money for hotels and lodging facilities’ extermination.

The good news is, that bedbugs can be defeated if you catch them before they take over your entire place. We know several people who acted swiftly at first bite, taking the DIY wash-and-spray approach. Months later, they are still chomp-free.


  1. Alexuma

    If you want to get make sure your house stays Bed Bug free get your home a few House Centipedes. House centipedes feed on spiders, bedbugs, termites, cockroaches, silverfish, ants and other household arthropods. Many homes have them – they are very very fast and creep out of cracks in the walls and floors. If you see them, turn a blind eye for a second, they will be gone before you know it…but whatever you do, DON’T KILL THEM! They are your friends. Ever since I heard this I just smile when I see them knowing they are helping me out…

  2. i’ve been hired to seal a few apartments in those large buildings on Ocean Parkway. You don’t realize how many ways things can get into your apartment until you crawl along the floor and into all the closets.

    on neat simple trick is putting each bedframe leg on a plastic block that is sitting in a tray of water ( kind of a moat for each bed frame leg), the bedbugs get trapped in the trays, and then you don’t get bit. make sure your sheets – blankets are not touching the floor.


  3. Ha! House centipedes. Those things are creepy. But since nothing is creepier than bedbugs, I could definitely put up with them if I knew they were preventing them…although now I’m having horrible images of centipedes creeping up my box spring in search of bedbugs. I can’t believe New York is dealing with this epidemic. I’ve put up with so much to live in this city, and I thought by this point I could deal with anything. But I will not stay here and pay out of the nose for my apartment when the risk of bedbugs is so high.

  4. Miz Jetter

    diatomaceous earth, this stuff works wonders! I had bed bugs after sleeping in a hotel room, I got lucky and noticed them right away. I sprinkled diatomaceous earth on everything and Washed all my clothing. I then vacumed all the diatomaceous earth up. I spent only $40.00 for the diatomaceous earth. Now I put it in the lining of my suitcases when I travel, so if they hitch a ride they die.

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