How to Get Rid of Bed Bugs in Clothes and Luggage

Nothing is quite as horrifying as discovering you have brought home bed bugs in your luggage – especially when you learn how difficult bed bugs are to kill. Whether you spotted adult bed bugs in a suitcase or you simply suspect that's how they made their way into your home, you need to take fast action to kill the infestation before it gets out of control.

Want to know how to get rid of bed bugs in clothes and luggage? It requires a multi-step approach that begins with washing and drying all of your clothing. Luggage and clothes can be carefully steamed to kill bed bugs or heated in a Zapp bed bug oven.

Here's everything you need to know about how to get rid of bed bugs in clothes and luggage once and for all:

How to Get Rid of Bed Bugs in Clothes and Luggage

Returned home to discover bed bugs in a suitcase? The good news is you probably don't need an exterminator as long as you act quickly and decisively with a multi-step approach. There are several strategies to kill bed bugs in a suitcase and your clothing without using anything more than what you already have at home.

Step #1: Empty the suitcase

The first step is emptying your luggage without spreading the bed bugs and eggs inside your home. The best way to do this is unpacking your suitcase on a hard surface away from living areas, such as in the laundry room or garage. Place the contents of your luggage directly into sealed plastic bags so they can be washed without allowing bugs and nymphs to escape. Make sure you do any laundry sorting in your infested work area, not in the laundry room or inside the home.

Step #2: Wash and dry clothing

Take the bagged clothing directly to the laundry room and dump it into the washer. Wash in hot water and dry your clothing at the highest possible setting or at least 120 degrees F. This is enough to kill adult bed bugs, nymphs, and eggs. If you suspect the bed bugs may have spread in your home before you noticed them in your luggage, it's a good idea to keep your clean clothing in new, sealed plastic bags until you address the infestation in other areas of your home.

Preparation for washing, viewed from inside the washer
Image credit: tigoligo, Deposit Photos

Items that can't be washed can usually still go through the dryer at medium to high heat for at least 30 minutes. The dryer is the most important step in the washing process to kill bed bugs. If you want to play it safe and avoid damage to delicate items, you can bag them and take them to a dry cleaner. Let the dry cleaner know the items may have bed bugs; they can be kept in sealed plastic just before they are loaded into the machines.

Step #3: Scrub the luggage

While your clothing is being washed, it's time to address the suitcase. Take your suitcase outside and use a stiff nylon brush to scrub every inch of the interior and exterior surfaces of the luggage, paying extra attention to seams, crevices, corners, and zippers. This will help dislodge eggs and dead nymphs and adults before you vacuum the entire suitcase.

Step #4: Sanitize your luggage

The most effective way to kill all bed bugs on your luggage is with heat. There are a few ways to accomplish this. Small carry-on luggage may fit in your dryer, the most effective solution possible. Otherwise, use a steam cleaner to carefully go over all surfaces, moving slowly to allow the steam to heat and kill any bed bugs and eggs that may be hiding.

zapp bed bug heater oven
Place your items inside a bed bug heater oven like this one to kill bugs and their eggs.

If you don't have a steamer, you can also seal the luggage in a heater designed to kill bed bugs. Placing your clothes in black garbage sacks in the hot, summer sun all day for several days (as depicted on many websites) will not necessarily kill bed bugs and their eggs.

The temperature inside the black sacks should heat to at least 125 degrees for at least an hour to kill bed bugs and eggs.

How did I bring bed bugs home from vacation?

Bed bugs don't have wings to fly but that doesn't mean they don't travel well. The most common way to get bed bugs in your home is by picking them up somewhere while traveling, usually when they hitch a ride home on your luggage. Bed bugs are most likely to hop in your luggage at a hotel, cruise line, or airport, hiding under zipper flaps and along decorative piping before making their way inside your suitcase.

bed bugs in zippered luggage
Bed bugs are tiny enough to fit through normal zips in your luggage.

Can Bed Bugs Get Into Zippered Luggage?

Unfortunately, bed bugs can get through a closed zipper unless it has very fine teeth, no openings at the ends, and a zipper cover. This type of zipper is usually only found on mattress encasements which are specifically designed to keep bed bugs from escaping. Bed bugs are very small and thin with the ability to wedge through openings the size of a credit card. It isn't difficult at all for bed bugs to squeeze through seams and zippers to get into your luggage.

Can Bed Bugs Live In a Suitcase?

Not indefinitely, but luggage is the most common way for bed bugs to travel one from place to another. They can even remain in a suitcase without any access to blood for up to 1 year or longer. Don't assume you can just put a suitcase in an isolated area of the garage or basement and assume any bed bugs will be dead months down the road.

Prevent Bed Bugs From Getting Into Your Luggage

It's surprisingly easy for bed bugs to catch a ride home with you after a cruise, hotel stay, or even a plane ride. Most bed bug infestations start with a hotel visit but there are a few easy steps you can take to prevent picking up some unwanted guests during your stay:

  • Make sure luggage is stored on a luggage rack and off the floor
  • Keep luggage zipped and closed when it's not being used. While bed bugs can squeeze through a zipper, it does create at least some barrier.
  • Store belongings in your luggage in sealed plastic bags. Bed bugs can't penetrate the bags to reach your clothing.
  • The best place to store your luggage for ultimate protection is in the bathroom, especially a dry shower stall or bathtub.

When you get back from your travels, unpack somewhere other than your bedrooms such as the garage or laundry room. Unpack the suitcase on a hard surface with bright lighting so you can check for any bed bugs. Place clothing in sealed plastic bags and wash right away.

UV flashlight for bed bugs
You can use a UV flashlight to help detect bed bugs.

You can inspect your suitcase with a UV blacklight flashlight to detect bed bugs, paying careful attention to pockets, seams, and folders.

Use a vacuum with a crevice tool attachment to vacuum the suitcase then place it in a sealed black plastic bag, leaving it in direct sunlight on a hot day for at least a few days. Alternatively, you can steam the suitcase to make sure it's disinfected.

Related Questions:

Can Bed Bugs Survive in the Washing Machine?

Yes, bed bugs can survive a washing machine cycle. Most will be killed in the washer but it's the dryer that truly kills bed bugs, nymphs, and eggs. High heat is the most effective way to kill bed bugs and this can be achieved in a dryer on the highest heat setting.

Will Bed Bugs Die in Plastic Bags?

Bed bugs won't be suffocated in sealed plastic bags. However, placing contaminated items in sealed black plastic bags in direct sunlight on a very hot day can be enough to kill bed bugs at all life stages. The internal temperature of the bag must reach more than 125 degrees for 60+ minutes.

Do You Have to Wash All of Your Clothes if You Have Bed Bugs?

No clothing should be overlooked when treating for bed bugs because the bugs can travel far and hide well. Not all clothing needs to be washed, however. Infested items can also be placed only in the dryer for at least 30 minutes on the highest setting to kill bed bugs and eggs.

Pictures of Bed Bugs on Suitcases

Interested to see pictures of what bed bugs look like on suitcases? See below:

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