Silverfish

How to Identify and Get Rid of Silverfish

Silverfish (Edited)
Christian Fischer/Wikimedia Commons

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Half-eaten pages in your books? Chewed-through boxes in your pantry? These are signs of a silverfish infestation. Here’s how to identify, get rid of, and prevent silverfish infestations in the home.

What are Silverfish?

The silverfish (Lepisma saccharina) is a small insect pest found around the globe. They are considered a nuisance pest, meaning that they are neither harmful to humans nor spread disease. Instead, silverfish are known for damaging material goods, such as books, wallpaper, photos, clothing, and dry foods in the kitchen pantry.

Silverfish are particularly attracted to under-sink areas in the bathroom or kitchen, where the environment is humid and dark. They may also live in walls, closets, or crawl spaces. They remain hidden during the day, but at night, they emerge to forage for food. 

A similar insect pest, the firebrat, looks and behaves much like the silverfish. Both pests can be controlled using the same techniques.

Silverfish

Fun Fact: The latter half of the silverfish’s Latin name, saccharina, refers to the insect’s fondness for eating materials made of polysaccharides (complex carbohydrates), such as cellulose and starch, which are found in paper products, fabrics, and foods. 

Identification

How to Identify a Silverfish

Silverfish are small insects with long, thin, carrot-shaped bodies. They typically reach no more than three quarters of an inch in length and have a silvery-gray coloration. Their bodies have no obvious segmentation, and adults are covered with thin scales resembling those of a fish. They are easily identified by the two long antennae stemming from their heads and the three tail-like appendages on their back-ends. They are smaller and thinner than cockroaches, and a different color than the similarly-sized earwig.

Silverfish have rather stubby legs, but don’t let that fool you. They are capable of moving very, very quickly, especially when startled. This is when most people see silverfish: when the pests’ late-night feasting is interrupted and they scurry back to the dark corners of your home. Their rapid side-to-side movement resembles a swimming fish, which is said to be the source of their name.

Silverfish Damage

Practically any material containing carbohydrates or proteins is susceptible to silverfish damage. Bookbinding glue and wallpaper paste are common targets. Often, silverfish won’t eat all the way through a material, in which case it will look like just a thin layer has been scraped off (see photo, below). Silverfish also feed on non-synthetic cloths, such as cotton or linen, evidenced by tiny, unconnected holes in the fabric.

Silverfish damage in a book. Photo by Micha L. Rieser/Wikimedia Commons.
Silverfish damage in a book. Photo by Micha L. Rieser/Wikimedia Commons.

Though silverfish usually stick to more humid places, they may also invade the kitchen pantry and target flour, cereals, and other grains. 

Control and Prevention

How to Get Rid of Silverfish 

  • Sticky traps, which consist of a cardboard base and a thin layer of sticky glue, can be effective at controlling small populations. Place traps in areas where silverfish activity is high. The insects will get stuck to the glue as they attempt to move across the trap. We recommend only using sticky traps that contain a pesticide in the glue, as this will prevent a trapped insect from suffering for too long needlessly.
  • Use dehumidifiers to dry the air in rooms where silverfish are seen, especially in the bathroom. Also ensure that under-sink areas in the kitchen and bathroom, as well as closets and cellars, are well ventilated.
  • Diatomaceous earth (DE)—a powder made up of tiny silica particles—can be effective. The particles act as an irritant and dehydrate insect pests as they come in contact with the powder. Spread DE around areas where silverfish have been seen, and around potential pest entry points, like cracks in the wall or furnishings.
  • Pyrethrin, a natural insecticide, is derived from chrysanthemum flowers and can be used to control silverfish. Its synthetic equivalent, permethrin, is generally more effective, as it does not break down as quickly when exposed to light and moisture. Warning: Both pyrethrin and permethrin are extremely toxic to cats!
  • There are a number of commercial pesticides that can be used to control silverfish. Always read a product’s label before use to determine that it is safe for your household.

How to Prevent Silverfish 

  • Silverfish enjoy humid places, so making sure that under-sink areas in the kitchen and bathroom are well ventilated can be an effective deterrent. Use a dehumidifier, if necessary.
  • Sealing gaps and cracks in your walls and floor will cut off entry points for the pests.
  • The strong scents of cinnamon and cloves are said to repel silverfish. Keep small amounts of these spices in areas where you commonly see the pests to help keep them at bay. 
  • Do not leave crumbs or food scraps out in the open, as they can attract silverfish (and other pests!).
  • Store precious documents and clothing in air-tight, plastic containers to keep silverfish from damaging them. 

Do you have any tips for preventing or stopping silverfish infestations? Tell us in the comments below!

Reader Comments

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Silverfish

My Grandmother always used Borax powder to get rid of silverfish. A big box is reasonably priced and I suspect that it works the same way as the DE powder does. I have used this up in my attic where I have seen these nasty critters. I poured it on the long beams around the perimeter of the house. I don't know if I got rid of all of them but I don't see many anymore in the living area. I also put the borax in the back of my cabinets in the kitchen and along the wall behind my dishwasher and stove. I poured it in a line in front of the dishwasher and used a hairdryer to blow it under to get it to the wall. Worked like a charm.

Pest & sticky glue strips

I'm all for getting rid of pest, no matter how. And if sticky glue strips do the trick, so be it.

Silverfish

I tend to see a lot of silverfish around my house. A home inspector advised me to get rid of wallpaper as much as possible throughout my home. I've done this and noticed it helped greatly. Apparently it's a delicacy for silverfish...

Glue traps

I am appalled that you would recommend glue traps to eliminate any pest. These are the most horrendous ways of dealing with "unwanted guests." No matter what the species, the creature, whether it is a silverfish or a mouse, gets stuck on the trap and spends a long time trying to get off it. In the meantime, it suffers greatly. Please to do not recommend these traps for any elimination of a pest.

Should a mouse, or other animal, get caught on a glue trap, it can suffer incredible pain in trying to free itself, as well as losing fur and sometimes skin. It may even try to chew off the appendage that is stuck. This kind of horror belongs only in horror movies, not people's homes. I beg you, please to not advocate the use of glue traps for any removal of a pest. There are better ways to get rid of silverfish, moths, mice, etc. I can not tell you how disturbed it makes me feel to think of a creature being stuck like this.

Sticky Traps

Thank you for expressing your concerns so passionately. We do NOT advocate the use of glue traps for vertebrate pests, such as mice and rats, under any circumstances. However, for invertebrate pests, there are sticky traps that contain pesticides, which ensures that the insect does not suffer for too long in the trap. We have edited the article to reflect this.

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