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Margie Goldsmith Headshot

When Traveling, B Is for "Bedbug," not "Baggage"

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Six months ago, a prominent Washington D.C couple discovered bedbugs in their rental apartment. To get rid of the infestation, they had to move out of their apartment for three months. (The reason it took so long was because the exterminators were so busy de-bedbugging some of Washington's five-star hotels that they had no time to return to spray the couple's apartment). The couple still doesn't know how the bedbugs actually arrived, but the husband travels often.

Like mosquitoes, bedbugs feed on blood. These insects live in the home, especially in and around the bed, and most of the time bite at night when people are sleeping, though they will feed at any time of day, if necessary.

Bedbugs didn't exist in the 40s when pesticides such as DDT were widely in use. Why the recent resurgence? Experts say it's due to more international and domestic travel, increased resistance of bedbugs to pesticides, ineffective pest control practices, and people not knowing what to do to prevent infestations. The wife in the bedbug-infested couple, a well-known internist (and whose name I promised not to use or the property manager will make her life miserable), says, "Bedbugs don't cause disease, but an infestation can make you go crazy."

While there is no instant fix for bedbugs, there are ways to control and avoid them when traveling. Here's what the bedbug-free doctor suggests:

  • Bedbugs are attracted by carbon dioxide, so they'll crawl up to you when you're sleeping. They usually stay close to their host -you - as well as inside the mattress, the box spring, and behind the headboard. Travel with a small flashlight and magnifying glass. When you enter your hotel room, put your suitcase in the bathtub and using the light and magnifying glass, check for bedbugs behind the headboard, under the sheets, and especially around the piping of the mattress. Check for bloodstains, fecal droppings, and eggs. Start by looking in an area 10-20 feet -- the distance a bed bug will usually travel -- where you would sleep or sit. Inspecting the bed is more complex than you think. For an excellent video, see: "How to Inspect a Bed for Bedbugs"
  • If you see any bedbugs go down to the hotel lobby and demand to change rooms immediately.
  • Always use hotel luggage racks to keep your luggage off the floor. When packing or unpacking do not set your luggage on the bed or floor. Don't put your clothes in the furniture drawers, but do hang them up.
  • When leaving the hotel, pack your pajamas in an airtight plastic bag. Remember, your PJs can be a fomite (an inanimate object that will transmit disease). Upon returning home, unpack directly into a washing machine and wash and dry your pajamas (and all your clothing, if you think you've been exposed to bedbugs) at high temperatures to kill bedbugs. If you have non-washable items, put them in the dryer to at least 113 ºF (45 ºC) for 1 hour. Do not overstuff the dryer; heat must reach all items. The higher the temperature, the shorter time you will need to kill bed bugs at all life stages. Cold treatments (below 0 ºF or -19 ºC) for at least four days will also eliminate some infestations. The cooler the temperature, the less time needed to kill bed bugs.
  • If you wake up in your hotel room and notice a group of bites on your body, that is the first sign of bed bugs. Look for bed bugs in your bed or where you have slept recently. If you've been outside in warm weather it's possible they're mosquito or flea bites. Remember, everyone reacts differently to bed bug bites: some have no reaction and others develop itchy lumps.
  • Bedbugs can be small bumps or large itchy welts that usually go away after a few
  • days. Don't panic. Because the bites may look like mosquito and other insect bites, a bump or welt alone does not mean there are bed bugs. If they ARE bedbugs bites, they can be very itchy and irritating. Most welts heal in a few days but in a few unusual cases, the welt can persist for several weeks. Usually an anti-itching ointment will help, but if your bites become infected, you should see a doctor.
  • On your arrival home, even if you experienced no bedbugs, brush well the outside of your suitcase, as the eggs can be sticky and you must get rid of them with a hard-bristled brush. Leave your suitcase as far away as possible from your bedroom (on a lower level, if you have one).
  • More aggressively, buy a home steamer that will kill all forms of bedbugs on contact. (You don't need to buy an expensive steamer; after all, steam is steam). Once you arrive home, put the nozzle right up to the material of your luggage and steam it inside and out.