Usually the first clue that you have bedbugs is to find small, bloody streaks on the bed sheets. The bugs are almost impossible to see. They bite while you're asleep, leaving small wounds that bleed a little. By morning the bugs have gone back into hiding, leaving you with small, itchy bites and stained sheets.
Before climbing into bed you might throw back bed covers quickly and look for tiny bugs the size and color of an apple seed, not much bigger than a poppy seed. Like apple seeds, they're brown or, when they are engorged with blood, red-brown. It's a plus if you choose bedding that is light in color so you can see bugs or stains better. Better still, buy white bedding in cotton or linen that can be washed in very hot water. Hot water kills bedbugs and their eggs and it also kills dust mites, a major allergen.
Unless you're particularly allergic to bedbugs or scratch so much that bites get infected, you can usually treat the bits with over-the-counter medications such as hydrocortisone salves. Once the houseboat is infested, however, bedbugs are here to stay. It's time to get tough.
Once you find bedbugs, waste no time in rushing the bedding off the boat. Strip the bed(s) down to the bare mattress and box spring and put bedding in a plastic trash bag or, better still, seal it in dissolving laundry bags. These bags are also sold in quantities of 100 by pest control companies such as www.Usbedbugs.com and by sick room suppliers such as www.SafeHomeProducts.com. The whole bag goes into a hot wash, reducing the possibility of spreading the infestation.
Dissolving laundry bags are a plus for houseboaters who don't have a bug problem too. Simply sort laundry into the bags, seal them shut to keep odors at bay, take them home or to a coin laundry and throw them in the washer.
Small-size bags are recommended for top-load machines that have a center agitator. Use two or more per wash load for balance. Just add an all-in-one laundry sheet and set the machine for hot wash. One or more large-size bags can be used in front-load machines.
In any case, removing bedbug-infested bedding is just the beginning of your battle because plenty of eggs, larvae, pupae and adult bugs are probably left behind, expanding their empire. If you're pretty sure the infestation is in a small area, remove all bedding and go over the area thoroughly and repeatedly with a hair dryer. (A steam cleaner could also be used by it's likely you already have enough humidity problems on your houseboat.) Temperatures of 115 degrees and higher must be raised in all surfaces, cracks and crevices for at least one hour. This can also be done by sealing off the bedroom completely and bringing in electric heaters to heat the entire room.
Professional pest control companies also use extreme heat, extreme cold, pesticides or a combination of all three to rid the entire boat of bedbugs. Contact a licensed pest control agency well experienced in bedbug control. If your houseboat is especially big and bugs especially elusive, you can also hire a bedbug-sniffing dog for $200-$300. Contact www.BedBugDogsFor Hire.com or call 888-708-9882 to see if there is a bedbug dog handler in your area.
The EPA says there is "no chemical solution" nor "silver bullet," implying that bedbug products sold over the counter could be a health hazard and/or ineffective. Although experts say it's usually better to bring in professionals at the start to keep a bedbug infestation from getting even worse, the super-heating option is worth a try in a houseboat because it's easier to seal and heat a smaller living area than an entire house.
Before moving into a new or used houseboat, check for bedbugs, paying special attention to box springs and headboards. Check both sides of mattresses and pay special attention to seams and cording. Wash new clothing and bedding before bringing it onboard. Use special mattress and box spring covers made especially to keep bedbugs out. They're available from www.BedBugCover.com.