Tiny parasites that suck your blood in the night. No, it’s not a plot line on a National Geographic TV show. It’s every homeowner’s or renter’s nightmare: a bedbug infestation.

These microscopic critters can be harder to get rid of than the broke cousin who sleeps on your couch. But the sooner you start, the better.

How do you know if you have bedbugs?

If you’ve woken up to unexplained, itchy, red welts in rows or clusters on your body, you may have bedbugs, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). How can you be sure? Robert Echols, a pest prevention specialist for Massey Services in Atlanta, suggests using a flashlight to look for these signs:

  • dark specks of blood on any bedding surfaces
  • blackish spots (bedbug feces)
  • tiny white or yellow spots (eggs laid by the female)
  • bedbug exoskeletons (which they shed)

Don’t just look on the bed. Bedbugs can be found on the headboard, in nearby electrical outlets, on the carpet near the baseboard, in corners of the room and in cracks on walls. “You’ll most likely see them within five to seven feet of where the host is sleeping,” Echols says. “They don’t travel far away from their food source.”

Also, bedbugs are nocturnal. So if you’re getting bitten during the day, it’s not a bedbug problem.

Related: How to Avoid Bringing Bedbugs Home from Your Vacation

If you think you have bedbugs, don’t panic: Rushing your bedding to the washing machine and dragging your mattress to the curb may just spread the problem. To protect your home and save money (and to avoid spraying pesticides in your house), try the following treatment options recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

DIY bedbug treatments

The basic strategy for eliminating bedbugs is to find them and either kill them through heat or starvation or get them out of your house.

Clean up and bag up. Start by de-cluttering. Your biggest priority will be to put all trash and infested items (old magazines, newspapers, cardboard boxes) into plastic trash bags. When these are full, seal them and remove them immediately to an outside trash receptacle. This helps prevent bedbugs from spreading into non-infested areas.

Get all clothing off the floor and strip the bed. Put the clothes and sheets in a trash bag, seal it and bring it directly to the washer. Empty the laundry right into the washing machine. Inspect laundry containers or hampers for signs of contamination.

Vacuum. Vacuuming will make your inspection easier and also reduce the bedbug population. Place the infested vacuum bag into a plastic bag (or empty the vacuum canister into one), seal the bag and take it to the outside trash. You should vacuum routinely as you monitor the bedbug situation.

Isolate and bug proof the bed. After you clear the clutter, pull the bed at least 6 inches away from the wall, making it an island near the center of the room. Vacuum the mattress and box spring, then encase them in a mattress cover. These covers seal the mattress so existing bedbugs eventually starve to death. The cover should have a zipper that will completely close the cover so bedbugs cannot escape.

You also can place bed bug interceptors under each leg of the bed frame. These interceptors reduce the population by trapping bedbugs as they attempt to climb up the bedpost.

When you make the bed, tuck in all sheets and blankets so they don’t touch the floor.

Related: Ban Cockroaches, Dust Mites and Other Allergens From Your Home

Use heat to kill. After washing your sheets and blankets, throw them in the dryer on maximum heat. Bedbugs can survive through the wash but not the heat of the dryer.

How to kill bedbugs on items that can’t be dried? Put them in plastic garbage bags and set the bags out in the sun. If the temperature inside the bag rises above 120 degrees, the bedbugs will die.

For larger items, like rugs or upholstered chairs, one option is to rent or purchase a steamer and use it to apply heat.

Another option, of course is to call in a professional. 

When to call a professional

If you take the DIY approach, be prepared for long-term monitoring and record keeping of when and where you find bedbugs, perhaps up to a month or more, the EPA says.  According to Echols, bedbugs feed only every four to five days, so the visible signs on your body may not appear every night.

A female bedbug can lay one or two eggs a day — which means you could eliminate 99 percent of the bedbugs in your home, but if that one female survives, you’ll still have a problem. 

Bottom line: If the problem persists or you notice the bedbug population is growing, it’s time to call a professional.

Related: What’s Lurking In Your Carpet?

Brian Fourman is a stay-at-home dad who writes about home safety and personal finance.