I got another question from another (anonymous) reader– we’ll call her S.
S. wants to know:
Last spring, we thought we had bedbugs. I woke up several mornings in a row with very itchy bites, and there were tiny blood stains on the sheets. We sent our down comforter and pillows to the drycleaner, washed our sheets, and an exterminator came. He inspected the entire mattress and box spring, and had us vacuum both the bed itself and the floor underneath. He found no bugs. When we put everything back together, it seemed that the problem had gone away.
However, that down comforter was hung on a hanger in our storage closet, and we haven’t used it in 6 months. Now that it’s winter, we decided to pull it back out. We put it on the bed Saturday night, went to sleep, and I woke up with multiple bites on both upper arms.
Can bedbugs live in a comforter for six months? Or might this be something other than bedbugs? We’re fairly certain that whatever “it” is, it’s in the comforter, so we put that comforter back in the storage closet, in a bag. Also, why didn’t the drycleaning kill whatever it was? Is there some other way to clean this nice down comforter, or do we need to throw it out?
Any advice you can offer on this confounding matter would be greatly appreciated. Thank you so much…
What a great question. (Sorry, though, that it is prompted by bites, from any source.)
I will give my not-very-expert opinion, and then I will ask others to weigh in with their varying degrees of expert-tude.
The short answer is that bed bugs can certainly survive for six months if not properly removed from a comforter. However, since the comforter was not completely sealed, I’d be really surprised they did not pop out and find you sooner. They can easily walk 10-20 feet (and I would not put it past them to walk further for food, especially since 6 months gives them time to rest on the way to dinner.)
If the comforter had been sealed in an airtight cover, the bugs, if still in the comforter after cleaning, could easily have lived 6 months and been ready to feed when you opened the cover. We’d be assuming also that that they survived their trip to the dry cleaners, for whatever reason. We’ve been told that “dry cleaning chemicals will kill bed bugs.” That said, like anything else that kills bed bugs, things can go wrong, methods can be misapplied: dry cleaning chemicals can, I assume, be used incorrectly, or in insufficient quantities.
However, you had the comforter stored on a hanger. If it was within the home, there’s really no reason the bed bugs could not have come walking to find you. Or at least someone else closer to the closet (if there is anyone closer to it). Is the storage closet in your home, or in an apartment building basement or a storage facility? In the latter two settings, your comforter could have been exposed to other people’s bed bugs, or even bat, rat, mouse or bird bugs. Bringing the comforter back in could have brought in those pests. (A basement or storage facility would explain why the bed bugs did not simply come and find you or move on to someone else.)
There are other possible reasons for the resurgence: could the reappearance with the use of the comforter also coincide with some other event that could have exposed you to bed bugs? (A visit to a place where you originally picked them up, perhaps? A neighbor’s bugs moving in? It’s possible.) Are there mice or rats or birds or bats possibly nesting within 20 feet of your bed, either inside or outside? They all act like bed bugs, and they could be biting you, especially if their animal host has departed, flown away, or been exterminated.
Finally, it’s possible that there’s another entirely different reason the comforter is “biting.” I don’t know how long you used the down comforter originally, but is it possible you had an allergy to the down, the fabric, or the chemicals used to clean it? I am not sure exactly what an allergic reaction would look like, but this FAQ says “Non-insect causes: allergies to cosmetics, animals, chemicals of all kinds may cause similar symptoms. There will, obviously, be no bed bug feces, bugs, or cast of shells in this case. See dermatologist and/or allergist.” (I paraphrased that from other sources, but I suppose this could be either an animal allergy (to down) or even a chemical one (something used in the dry cleaning). It also depends, I suppose, on what your “bites” look like. And I am not sure what else besides an allergy might have caused this, but if the comforter was not sealed, I’d look for non-bedbug causes. Remember allergies can develop out of the blue, to substances that previously did not bother you.
Do you have any other “signs” of bedbugs, like little black specks that look like black pepper sitting on your sheets or comforter? If so, who knows, maybe they did hide out in the comforter for awhile, or maybe they left the comforter to bite others (neighbors? people in the home?) and when those hosts left, came back to you? In the presence of any bedbug signs, I’d destroy and ditch the comforter right away and get a PCO in to treat the area again. If you indeed had bed bugs the first time, you caught them early and did a great job of that. You were lucky to get rid of them (they were not in the walls, etc.) By the way, blood on the sheets is a bed bug sign, but if something else is biting you or making sores you are itching (and so you’re causing yourself to bleed in bed), there could be other reasons for blood.
If you want to save the comforter, and are pretty sure it is bed bugs, you can seal it in an XXL ziploc (Target, Home Depot, Drugstore.com) for 18 months, the longest anyone has claimed they could live without feeding. Make sure the seal is air-tight and will not be disturbed. Yes, you could dry clean again, but I’d be worried that whatever allowed them to survive might do so again. You may also be able to find a comforter cover that is dust-mite-proof and then enclosing it in that for 18 months and sealing the zipepr with tape. I wouldn’t, though: zippers are very hard to completely seal, and bedbug nymphs can get through zippers. You just need a few to escape and you’ll be losing a lot more than the cost of the comforter. Personally, I’d ditch it.
Does anyone know if fleas infest down comforters? Even if you don’t have pets, fleas can be found in your home. Maybe they live in the closet.
Perhaps some of the entomologists, pest control folks, or Bedbuggers themselves have other suggestions or ideas? Or better questions, to help get to the bottom of this?