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Bed Bugs: The Traveler's Response

Bed Bug Advice for Travelers and Other Unfortunates

(The following is a companion piece for my latest Ann Arbor Chronicle column, on the Epidemic of Press-Release (Re)-Reporting about the "Epidemic" of Bed Bugs.)

So, you're traveling and find a bed bug--or evidence there-of. What is the well-measured and reasonable response?

  1. DO NOT PANIC! Bed bug bites are no biggie.
  2. DO NOT STAY IN A BED BUG ROOM!
  3. POLITELY ALERT MANAGEMENT
  4. SWAP ROOMS AND CHECK FOR BED BUGS

DO NOT PANIC!

Bed bugs are gross, but they do not carry disease and very few people are allergic to their bites. In fact, up to about 30 percent of the human population won't even react to a bed bug bite. Those who do will tend to react much as they do to mosquito bites: Itchy lumps that last a few days, and can be soothed with ice, calamine lotion, or--for those who are highly reactive--an over-the-counter creams containing topical antihistamines (e.g., "Benadryl Itch Relief cream") or steroids (e.g., "hydrocortisone cream"). Bed bug bites are no biggie.

DO NOT STAY IN THAT ROOM!

The real problem aren't the bugs, but their eggs: After a female feeds, she runs off and hides in order to lay a bunch of very tiny, very sticky eggs. The worst case scenario is that these eggs wind up on your clothes or luggage, and you inadvertently take them home. Almost as bad is carrying a bed bug or two home with you; they have clawed legs, and are excellent hitchhikers.

POLITELY ALERT MANAGEMENT

Be cool about it; bed bugs are a fact of life in the hospitality industry, but still relatively rare in many cities (and even in cities with major bed bug problems, the infestations are spotty: a hotel that's never seen a single bed bug can be next door to an apartment building with a major infestation). The manager is going to be just as grossed out as you. If possible, bring them the evidence--either as clear cell phone pics, or by capturing a live bug (or, God forbid, bugs in a glass). They are going to be super accommodating, and probably reduce your rate. Don't be a jerk: The tiny bug in your glass is going to cost this manager thousands of dollars; you've just ruined his or her day.

I spoke to an anonymous general manager in a major midwestern city. According to him, most major chains and quality hotels take bed bugs insanely seriously. Housekeeping staff are trained to check for bed bugs (and other vermin) with every turn of the room, and if anything is reported by staff or guests, that room is closed down. The hotel has a standing contract with a reputable pest control company, who usually come and do a thorough inspection that day. As I discussed in my bed bug "epidemic" column, most of these will be false alarms. But if there is a legit infestation, then they "burn the room down": All bedding, furniture, carpet, base-boards, and decorations are removed and destroyed. The room is then fumigated or heat treated (or a combo of the two). Then every adjacent room (both sides, and both above and below) is likewise checked, and if infected "burned down," too. This costs them about $5,000 per room.

Incidentally, there's apparently a lively online trade in dead and live bed bugs to be used in scamming free rooms at hotels, so don't be put off if the manager is somewhat dubious when you show up with a bed bug you claim to have found in your room. This dude has to be wary of some con man setting him up to take a $5000 loss on a $180-per-night double.

SWAP ROOMS AND CHECK FOR BED BUGS

Switch to a room on the other side of the hotel. Bed bugs are lazy and slow: They don't fly, they don't jump, they just hitchhike. Heck, in most infestations they don't even spread beyond the head of the bed. Unless the infestation is *terrible,* rooms on the other side of the hotel will be fine.

CHECKING A HOTEL ROOM FOR BED BUGS

For starters never place your luggage on a bed. This is a good rule to live by, at home and abroad, when staying at a hotel or a friend's cabin. Luggage is kinda gross: it gets dragged and dropped and stuffed into cargo holds and let sitting on sidewalks. It's basically as dirty as the shoes you wear all day, and you'd never toss your dirty shoes on the bed. Same with luggage. In a hotel you want to keep it as far from the bed--which is where the bugs, if present, will certainly be--as you can. The bathroom is an *excellent* spot; remember, bed bugs have hooks on their feet, not sticky pads (like cockroaches). So, walking across smooth, hard tile is hard for them. Also, the bathroom are often cold, and always bright when people are in it, and dark when empty; that's the opposite of what bed bugs like. A bed is warm and dark when folks are present; if it's cold and bright, the bed bugs hide. If the bathroom isn't big enough to keep your luggage there for the entire stay, then keep the luggage as close to the door as possible.

According to the anonymous hotel manager, bed bugs are pretty damn easy to spot: "You go into a room that's infested, it only takes about five minutes, and you'll know if you have them. It's not like you really have to look very hard." But you need sharp eyes and good light, so keep a little LED flashlight handy for this task, and either have a helper, or have a helper to keep your kids busy someplace else while you search. Don't rush!

What are you looking for?

  • bed bugs
  • shed skins from bed bugs
  • bed bug poop (this looks like spatters of mildew or dried blood--and is, in fact, excess human blood the bug couldn't digest)

(Google has tons of pictures to aid your search.)

Where are you looking?

  • the sheets, pillowcases, and pillows (especially near the head of the bed; most often you'll find bed bug poop stains on bedding, not bugs)
  • the seams of the mattress (peel back that rolled seam to look under it; this is the numero uno bed bug hiding place, especially near the head of the bed)
  • the seams of the box spring and inside the box spring (especially near the head of the bed)
  • the bed frame (underneath, in gaps, in screw holes, inside hollow parts)
  • behind the head board and any hanging art above the bed
  • in or around the bedside table (including inside drawers, underneath, in screw holes, in gaps in the wood, etc.)

Frankly, if you find absolutely *no* signs in the bedding, mattress, and box spring, you're probably clean. If you find marks that you suspect are bed bug poop stains, keep searching. It's not *super* uncommon to find stains or shed skins, but no live bugs; it just means that the room has been treated. Also, the shed skins of several insects (including carpet beetle larva) or pretty easily mistaken for bed bug skins. But a live bed bug is pretty easy to ID from a google pic.

If the room checks out, then rest easy--but still be vigilant: Passing guests can drop a hitchhiker or two in the hall, or a room can have a few lone bed begs without being "infested" yet. Keep your luggage in the bathroom, or unpack and use the dresser drawers (after checking them for signs of bugs).

RETURNING HOME: CLEARING YOUR TRAVEL GEAR OF BED BUGS

If you have been in an infested bed, it's not the end of the world--but since a standard, effective residential bed bug treatment costs at about $1,000, you also don't want to bring them into your house.

Again, DO NOT PANIC! Almost all of your travel gear can be de-bugged using your clothes dryer, and the very few remaining items can be treated with your freezer or some cheap supplies from the hardware store. The most important thing is not to let any potentially infested items come into contact with your furniture or rugs; a big roll of garbage bags is handy here, so you can quarantine items while carrying them to your laundry room.

DE-BED BUGGING WITH YOUR CLOTHES DRYER (EVEN DELICATES!)

Although bed bugs are highly resistant to all but the harshest pesticides, they are highly susceptible to heat: As little as one-minute of exposure to 120-degrees Fahrenheit will kill a bed bug or its eggs at any life stage. I spoke to my brother-in-law, an engineer with Whirlpool, and he confirmed that 120 degrees is on the low-end of the heat range for any residential clothes dryer. Any clean, dry textile can be heated to 120 degrees without fear of damage--even woolens, silks, satin, "dry-clean only," etc. So, if you have cloth things (even your soft-sided luggage or purse or laptop bag, as well as stuffed animals) that may be harboring bed bugs or their eggs, just toss them in the dryer, set it to medium, and run it for 10 to 20 minutes.

Why so long if it only takes 1 minute to kill? Because you need the heat to penetrate the entire load and get all of every item up to 120 degrees; small loads and high heat are a good idea. Also, bear in mind that it's highly unlikely that your clothes washer gets to 120 degrees (bed bug eggs can survive both the water and the detergent). It's the dryer that's doing the de-bed bugging here. (Incidentally, if you do need to have bed bugs exterminated in your house, go with a heat treatment where they use industrial heaters to raise the temp of your entire house to 120 degrees. This is expensive, but it is safer for your health and much more likely to actually stamp out the infestation in a single treatment).

DE-BED BUGGING WITH YOUR FREEZER AND OTHER OPTIONS

Items that you absolutely don't want to be put in the dryer can be frozen; 80 hours (i.e., about 3.5 days) at 3.2 degrees or colder will kill bed bugs at any life stage (including eggs). On the face of it, this is pretty easy, since freezers are usually kept at 0 degrees. But, in practice, it's a little tricky. First off, residential freezers that are part of a fridge-freezer combo aren't precision instruments; running around 3 degrees is perfectly normal. Second, even if that freezer is set to zero, every time you open the door the cold air dumps out and warm air is drawn in, sending the temperature easily over five degrees, and bed bugs can live indefinitely at five degrees. So, that freezer isn't going to be reliable. If you have a chest freezer though, you're all set: Chest freezers are reliable zero degrees or below, and they don't change their temperature much when opened. So, four days in the chest freezer will do you.

For items that can neither be heated nor frozen (like antique books or electronics with LCD screens), you can place them in gallon-size or larger Ziploc bags along with a No-Pest Strip. Seal the bag and leave it alone for 72 hours. These fumigating strips aren't as safe as heat/cold treatment (they are plastic impregnated with dichlorvos--another of those organophosphate nerve agents I talked about in the column), but they are effective.

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About the Author


David Erik Nelson is a freelance writer and former high school teacher. His fiction has appeared in Asimov's, The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded.

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