Bedbugs in the Dorm: 8 Tips for Families

It’s the most dreaded phone call the parent of a college student could ever get. What phone call am I talking about? Is it “Oh Mom, he’s so hot – not at all like these stuffy academics. And the way he writes! All dreamy and Goth and his prison stationary is just so, so retro and real.” Or is it, “Mom, Dad, I’ve decided to change my major. The wave of the future is clearly a career in journalism.”

Instead, how about, in a hoarse whisper, “Mom, our dorm’s got…” (ominous Hollywood soundtrack) “bedbugs.”

Yikes. We’re talking a full-on screeching violin Wes Craven horror. Could this happen to you and yours?

Sadly, yes. Bedbugs happen. Even to Abercrombie and Fitch. Bedbugs have risen in the public’s consciousness faster than Lady Gaga.

So before you run around in circles, freaking and hand-waving, deciding maybe you SHOULD helicopter in to guerrilla-rescue your six foot three baby, here are 8 practical tidbits of information to help you deal:

1) Bedbugs don’t (as far as we know yet) cause or spread disease. Think of them like a ground-troop of tank-shaped mosquitoes. They crawl out at night and bite, leaving behind itchy welts. The welts can be miserably itchy, and, if they’re on your face or neck, a cringe-worthy problem when you’re heading out to a sorority party. But, other than some topical itch-cream, there’s nothing to be done about the welts except get to rid of the mosquitoes (oops), I mean bedbugs.

2) Are you sure it’s bedbugs? Take the time to ask how your student knows it’s bedbugs. Sometimes the whole dorm has been notified because of a verified infestation. But other times, it’s not so clear-cut. If your kid has been cruising the internet (and who hasn’t?), reading bedbug horror stories, and then he gets bitten by mosquitoes while attending a Welcome Students barbecue, it can be awfully easy to believe the worst. There are other things that can mimic bedbugs. Mosquito bites is clearly one of those things – but people usually don’t tend to get bitten consistently by mosquitoes every evening. Fleas are another thing that can mimic bedbug bites. If someone illegally had a pet, then moved out, desperate fleas will bites human. Finally, besides an almost-every-night pattern of bedbug bites as clue that it may truly be bedbugs, the pattern of the welts may be a clue also. Bedbugs tend to bite in a cluster. They’re no fools – they zip out and bite, bite, bite, then go hide again. So bedbug bites can be in a line and they are most often in exposed areas while you sleep: your face, arms, feet and ankles, and shoulders if you sleep on your side or back.

In the assault on your body, if mosquitoes are the Luftwaffe, then bedbugs are the Panzer division.

In the assault on your body, if mosquitoes are the Luftwaffe, then bedbugs are the Panzer division.

3) Be sure to inform yourself and get your student informed about bedbugs from reputable sources. The joint CDC and EPA statement is a great start, as well as the Cornell Bedbug Information site. Massive pesticide use, especially by a freaked out student who went to Home Depot and got the most lethal can available and sprayed and sprayed and sprayed everything (including eating utensils) may be a MUCH bigger threat to health than any tiny vermin could ever be. Bedbug eradication takes a calm, reasoned, sustained approach – something that’s often difficult to attain once you become aware they’re crawling over you and your loved ones.

Tiny dots in a cluster - easier to see on pale skin

Tiny dots in a cluster – easier to see on pale skin

4) Those “welts” can vary tremendously. Don’t let your kid’s Resident Advisor, or (true story) an exterminator decide if the lesions are really bedbug bites or not. For some people, the bites are almost impossible to see, for others, they’re as big as a half-dollar with a central blister. For some very rare, unfortunate people, the allergic reaction can be severe enough to cause death. If your kid is telling you about symptoms like tongue swelling, lip swelling, facial swelling or throat tightening – it’s time to get your student to emergency services NOW. After the immediate symptoms are dealt with, and a diagnosis is made, make sure your kid moves to a bedbug-free location (without taking any luggage from the dorm room!) and then it really may be appropriate to helicopter in and help deal with things until your kid is well enough to do so, on her own.

5) Getting rid of bedbugs in a dorm setting can be particularly challenging. One of the important keys to containing or eradicating a bedbug infestation is sustained, detailed cleaning down to the deepest crevices by each person. Anyone know an entire dorm capable of this? Anyone? I’m not seeing any hands, people. And here’s the kicker – even if your student can do this (while swamped with work and activities), AND sustain it, all it takes is a nearby neighbor to undo much of the success. Bedbugs aren’t fools – they move from room to room, zipping along pretty fast. Getting rid of them is a sustained communal effort, otherwise they just take a break from one room and then come back to it later.

Bigger welts that end in a line on the ankle

Bigger welts that end in a line on the ankle

6) Dealing with authorities can be a challenge, especially when you’re trying to help your student step up and take on this task herself. First, be sure that if your student is the first person to suspect bedbugs, that he knows to inform both the Residence Life, and the Housing/Facilities staff. Just telling your RA is not enough. If your student doesn’t make any headway with that first step, you may want to encourage him to go to student health. If there are concerns about the appropriateness of the institution’s response (such as students being exposed to fogging pesticides while still living in the dorm – yikes), then also contacting a local health department may be helpful. But be warned, many public health departments are swamped with bedbug calls, and may not be as responsive as you’d wish. Finally, you may want to get involved and contact college staff as a parent after all other attempts have failed. The brutal truth is that many parents are footing all or part of the bills for college life, and administrative staff may be more responsive to parents (who are often more sophisticated about politely asking for results) than they are to students.

7) What about when your student comes home? First, if there has been a sustained bedbug eradication effort, and your student is no longer being bitten, then the bedbugs are most likely gone. Bedbugs are not known for their restraint – if there’s a body around, they’re going to bite it. So no more bites is a really good sign. But if your student still gets the occasional nocturnal bite, and you’re understandably worried about getting bedbugs in your home, here are some steps you can take. You’ll want to minimize the chances that bedbugs will hitch a ride and find a new, yummy vacation spot (read: your house) when your student comes home for break. First, get your kid to bring any belongings home in either disposable bags, or a bag that can be “retired” out of use for a long time. Ask your student to go straight to the laundry room on arrival, strip down and stick all clothes onto wash, and then high heat in the dryer. Now’s a great time to get your kid a new change of clothes – one that’ll be waiting right there in the laundry room for him to wear. All other clothes (as few as possible) that come home ought to also be popped into the wash and high heat dryer as soon as possible. If you’re feeling really committed to making sure no bedbugs make it into your house, go straight to a laundromat and do all the loads simultaneously. Put whatever bags came home into a clear plastic bag (if you can find a huge one!) and then seal it airtight shut. Put the plastic-bag sealed belongings into direct sun for several days, and that heat may kill off any bedbugs inside. Otherwise, leave them sealed in the bag for a year. Does that sound excessive? Keep in mind that bedbugs can hide inside the tight lining or “flaps” of many things, such as wallpaper or picture frames, and can live as long as a year without feeding. The big challenge is going to be deciding what to keep when it’s time to empty the dorm room at the end of the semester.

8) Most importantly, whatever you dispose of, make sure you’re not just passing bedbugs along to another family. That kind of serious bad karma is sure to rebound on you – so label items as “infested,” or even destroy them so they can’t be re-used.

Dealing with bedbugs, as dorm life proves, is a communal task. We as a society all have to work together to defeat the little (har) suckers. You can still do your part, even if your student hasn’t (yet) gotten bedbugs, just by forwarding along and sharing this information. Feel free to post the link on parent forums, and send along the info to friends of college-aged students, and especially students themselves. And then, sleep tight…and don’t let the bedbugs bite.

STAY TUNED FOR AN UPCOMING LIVE CHAT on the topic of Bedbugs, with Doc Gurley!

Got a bedbug story you’d be willing to share? Are you willing to go to the lengths necessary to avoid bedbugs in your life? Sound off in the comments section. Doc Gurley is the only Harvard Medical School graduate, ever, to be awarded the coveted Shoney’s Ten Step Pin for documented excellence in waitressing, and is a practicing board-certified internist. You can get more health posts at, or jump on the Twitter bandwagon and follow Doc Gurley. Also check out Doc Gurley’s joyhabit and iwellth twitter feeds – so you can get topic-specific fun, effective, affordable tips on how to nurture your joy and grow your personal wellth.

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