Preventing and Treating Bed Bug Infestations in Residence Halls

College dorms are among the top 10 hiding places for bed bugs. Prevention is preferable to treatment when dealing with this pest.

The 2018 “Bugs Without Borders” survey conducted by the National Pest Management Association found that college dormitories are the seventh most common place pest management professionals (PMPs) found bed bugs. (Single-family homes are the most common, followed by apartments/condominiums and hotels/motels). Forty-five percent of PMPs reported treating for bed bugs in college dorms. And, three of four PMPs say that bed bugs are the #1 most difficult pest to control.

College dormitories experience significant human traffic, and contain personal belongings, equipment, furnishings and décor that provide harborage near potential hosts (humans). Often the student’s bed is the center of activity—used for studying, relaxing, and eating, in addition to sleeping. Plus, dorm rooms are typically small—and cluttered, giving the bugs more places to hide and making it harder to get rid of them. This combination puts dorms in the “high risk” category for bed bug infestations.

Tell-Tale Signs of Bed Bugs

Since most dorms are not subject to regular cleaning or inspection by college personnel, the first signs of bed bugs frequently come from the students themselves. Adult bed bugs approximate the size of an apple seed, but juvenile forms and eggs may be more difficult to identify because of their small size. Telltale signs of bed bugs include:
  • Students who approach their resident advisors (RAs) or campus staff with overt bites (welts) dispersed throughout their body. However, not everyone will show signs of bites—and welts may not appear on some people for days.
  • Bed bug droppings, which can often look like black magic marker smudges, on fabric and other surfaces.
  • The presence of casts or molted skins. As bed bugs mature, they shed their skin on multiple occasions.
  • Blood-splattered linens. Often a sleeping student will unconsciously slap at a biting bed bug, resulting in a blood stain on the linens.

If any of these signs are noted, a PMP should be contacted as soon as possible and the room quarantined until inspection. Unless there is an obvious positive sign of a bed bug, the PMP will typically provide either visual evidence and/or a positive alert via an inspection by a trained dog.

If a room is determined to be positive for bed bugs, best management practice suggests that the PMP thoroughly inspect the adjoining rooms beside, below, and above. Inspection of nearby rooms across the hall from the target room is also common. Minimally, treatment of the adjoining walls, ceilings, and floors to prevent migration from the target room is recommended—which is a very expensive process. Common areas frequented by student residents in the target room (e.g., television or game room, laundry room, dining area) should also be inspected as bed bugs are notorious hitchhikers and may have unknowingly been transported to these areas. Early intervention and control are key in stopping an incident from becoming a widespread infestation.

Prevention More Effective, Less Expensive Than Treatment

From both cost and reputation perspectives, bed bug prevention is far preferable to post-infestation treatment. Colleges and universities should consider adopting a program to prevent the problem from developing in the first place. A comprehensive preventive program of periodic detailed inspections, reduction of clutter, and adoption of proactive tools may include:
  • Mattress platforms—Typical railed spring-coiled mattress frames are full of nooks and crannies and are common hiding places for bed bugs. Inspecting the mattress is not enough; thoroughly check crevices throughout the metal spring platform.
  • Headboards and footboards—Up to 85 percent of bed bugs are found within a five-foot radius of the bed, with headboards being notorious hiding places. Typically, beds include metal, wood, or wood composite designs for these elements. Special attention to textured surfaces and attachment sites (dowel pins, hinges, screw holes, etc.) should be given during inspection. If headboards are attached to walls, pay attention to how the headboard is attached to the wall to reduce hot spots for bed bug activity.
  • Blankets or comforters that cascade to the floor, especially highly ruffled and pleated ones, are an easy entrance ramp. A better idea? Keep bedding tucked in and off the floor.
  • Clutter reduction is key to facilitating inspection and if necessary, effective treatment.  Students should try to keep belongings in sealed containers and bins rather than strewn on the floor, at the bottom of closets, or underneath the bed.
  • Window treatments—Blinds and shades, most specifically, those with valances are common hiding sites for bed bugs. Consider using those window treatments with the least tufting and pleating. And if a bed bug incident should occur, don’t overlook inspecting these high-risk areas.
  • Seating—Upholstered couches and chairs pose risks. (Unfortunately, second-hand upholstered furniture—the kind students often bring from home or even pick up at a local yard sale to furnish their dorms—provides prime hiding places for bed bugs.) If upholstered seating is used, those with fixed seating and backrests, as compared to loose pillow designs, are a greater deterrence to bed bug harborage. Any second-hand furniture, especially upholstered seating, must be painstakingly inspected before introducing into the room.
  • Pictures and posters hung with hardware that punctures the wall are common bed bug harbor sites. While it is probably not reasonable to eliminate pictures from dorm room walls, it is best not to place them on the wall on which the bed and headboard rest. Always check for peeling tape and other loosely attached adhesives as bed bugs will easily find harborage in these areas.
  • Preventive, active mattress liners—Unlike an encasement that simply wraps around the bed and traps bed bugs inside, active mattress liners kill bed bugs and continue to protect students for two years. As easy to install as a fitted sheet, within 10 minutes of contact these preventive liners render bed bugs no longer able to bite and females incapable of dropping their eggs. In a hotel setting, these liners have been proven to reduce at least 80-90 percent of infestations before they establish.

While stopping the introduction of bed bugs is not possible, preventing its development into an infestation is achievable through implementation of proactive, preventive measures and continued vigilance.

About the Author

Joseph Latino is president, Allergy Technologies LLC, a leading science-based manufacturer of pest control products. The company is a subsidiary of A. Carey Co. LLC, which focuses on using philanthropy as a core business strategy for its businesses. Through its Philanprofit strategy, a portion of all proceeds go to help fund inner-city homeless and women's shelters and asthma clinics.