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How to Avoid Bed Bugs When You Travel

Stephanie loves to travel. She has written numerous articles with tips, photographs, and information on places to visit.

Don't Let the Bed Bugs Bite!

It's probably at the top of any traveler's list of nightmare scenarios—staying in a hotel room with bed bugs. Unfortunately, it's quite common, even at 4- and 5-star properties around the world.

As adults, the idea of bed bugs crawling under the sheets is even more horrifying than our childhood fears of monsters under the bed. These critters are real—and they are not going away!

So how can you avoid bed bugs? What can you do to treat a bed bug bite? What are the signs that there are bed bugs in your room?

Having just returned from a trip where I encountered the pests first hand, I've got some tips for you... If you dare!

Bed bugs along a mattress

Bed bugs along a mattress

What Are Bed Bugs?

Bed bugs are tiny insect parasites that feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals—including humans. Adult bed bugs are about 1/4 inch long, small (yet visible to the naked eye) and wingless. They range in color from white to tan to deep brown. After feeding, they may appear to have a dark black center within their body. But the average person may find it difficult to find the pests simply by looking. They hide in cracks and crevices and avoid coming out in sunlight.

We don't know them by their scientific name, Cimex lectularius (Cimicidae), but rather as "bed bugs" because they make their homes in our living spaces, burrowing into bed mattresses, sofas, and pillows. As a traveler, you are likely to encounter bed bugs in hotel rooms, cruise ships, hostels and other shelters.

Just what you want on your vacation, right?

How Can You Tell If You Have Bed Bug Bites?

I will tell you from first-hand experience that you probably will not feel the bed bugs biting you. In fact, the bites sometimes do not even itch until they start healing. However, some people are sensitive to the bugs' saliva, which can result in an allergic response and skin lesions that resemble mosquito bites.

Bed bugs are active at night, preferring darkness over the light of day. Their peak time for biting is about 1 hour before dawn. Bed bugs are attracted by the warmth of our bodies and the CO2 that we breathe out.

Bed bug bites are distinct from other insect bites (mosquitoes, sandflies, fleas and ticks) as follows:

  • Appearance is a small red bump, similar to a mosquito bite, but lasting much longer.
  • Unlike flea bites, there is not a red dot in the center of a bed bug bite.
  • Bed bug bites can take up to a week to become visible on human skin.
  • The tell-tale sign of a bed bug is bites in a row (they may return to the same area after being disturbed, or they have made multiple attempts to get a good vein).
  • Some people will not show any signs of being bitten by bed bugs. That's right—you may never even know that they were in your bed!
  • You could look for signs of bed bugs—described below—but quite frankly, seeing the little red bumps on my feet and legs was enough. I didn't want to pull back the covers and look around the seams of the mattress!
Bed bug bites on my foot

Bed bug bites on my foot

Where Do Bed Bugs Live?

Bed bugs are usually found in mild, temperate climates, but they are quite adaptable. In other words, you can find them in just about any place where they can find food.

If you have been on vacation and stayed in a room with bed bugs, chances are you could bring home an unwanted souvenir! Bed bugs will stow away in luggage, clothing and even furniture purchased at second-hand stores. Gives the term "flea market" a whole new meaning, doesn't it?

Even the cleanest homes, apartments and hotel rooms may be infested with bed bugs. They get in through cracks in the walls and even scurry through electrical outlets! A bed bug infestation has to be eradicated right away, or the pests will continue reproducing and set up a nice little home for themselves right inside your place!

Bed Bug Infestation

Lines of bed bug bites down my leg

Lines of bed bug bites down my leg

What Are the Signs of Bed Bugs?

Most hotel managers will tell you that they know there is a bed bug problem once a guest complains of getting bitten! However, do not expect all travel properties to be accommodating of your complaints. The very idea of bed bugs is not one that future guests want to hear about. So, oftentimes, guests will be told that their bites are sand flies or mosquitoes, instead of bed bugs.

That's exactly what happened to me.

If you are wondering if you have bed bugs in your room, you can investigate. Signs of bed bugs include tiny spots of blood or dark brown/reddish bed bug droppings on the linens. You can also spot bed bug eggs (resembling tiny poppy seeds) along mattress seams. Although bed bugs themselves hide during the day, you might find them hiding under mattresses, behind loose wallpaper, in laundry baskets or in drawers near beds.

Professional pest control companies, like Orkin, can determine whether you have bed bugs. In fact, some dogs can be trained to sniff out the pests too!

What to Do If You Get Bitten

For most people, the worst thing about getting bed bug bites is the idea of the tiny pests in their bed, biting them. Bed bug bites themselves are not usually dangerous or harmful. Few people will experience allergic reactions.

Unlike mosquitoes, bed bugs do not transmit disease. You could get an infection from scratching bed bug bites, but that is usually the extent of any potential problem.

Do be aware that bed bug bites seem to take forever to heal, and also that bites may not appear until days after you are bitten. I got my bites over a week ago, and the red dots stubbornly remain covering my feet and legs. A few stay bites are visible on my arms and hands, too.

If itching is a problem, ask your doctor if you can take over-the-counter antihistamines like Benadryl and/or use a topical cream with cortisone. Should your bites get infected, you may need antibiotics. Again, consult a medical professional.

Parting Thoughts

The bottom line on how to avoid bed bugs when you travel?

  • Read online reviews of hotels, hostels, cruise lines, etc.
  • Check the mattress and other areas of the room after you check in and before you go to bed.
  • Ask for a new room or, better yet, call your travel agent to ask for a new hotel if you discover signs of bed bugs in your room.
  • Be persistent—don't allow management to deny your reports of bed bugs!

Travel smart and safe, and don't let the bed bugs bite!

How Can You Stop Bed Bugs?

There are several ways to stop bed bugs if you happen to stay in a place that is infested with them, or if you inadvertently bring them home.

  1. Do not lay your suitcase on a bed, or near a bed you suspect to have bed bugs.
  2. Wash all bedding and clothing in hot water—a minimum of 120 degrees F. Dry clean only garments can also be dry cleaned to kill bed bugs, but be sure to let the dry cleaners know so they can take precautions to avoid infestation at their establishment.
  3. Dry fabrics on high heat for at least 20 minutes after washing.
  4. Alternatively, place fabrics in sealed plastic bags and leave outside on a hot, sunny day. You can also freeze the bags if warm sunshine is not an option where you live.
  5. If you can part with your items, it might be best to simply throw them away.
  6. Vacuum folds of beds and sofas and the edges of carpeting. Dispose of vacuum cleaner contents in a sealed bag as soon as possible.
  7. Hire a professional pest control company to treat the area with insecticides and examine the affected rooms for eggs. Several visits may be necessary.
  8. Use a protective cover for your mattress and box spring. Bugs trapped inside will die, but those outside of it (unfortunately) will not!

Unfortunately, you cannot starve bed bugs. Bed bugs can live for months without feeding, but they do prefer a meal every 5-10 days.

Much as it would be great to simply wait them out by staying at a friend's house—and hopefully not bringing an unwelcome host gift—you will need to take steps to eradicate bed bugs from your home as soon as possible!

© 2010 Stephanie Marshall