The odds of your family returning home from a vacation with bedbugs are extremely small – but steadily increasing.
Bedbugs have been known for centuries. But in recent decades they have kept a low profile, restricting themselves to mostly seedy establishments. No more. They are popping up all over the world, sometimes in the plushest of hotels, and worse, in homes like yours.
Here is what you should know:
1. Hotels are prime places to become infected. Rooms your family occupies may have had a hundred different guests in the previous year. If one guest brought the bugs into that room – often unknowingly – countless subsequent guests may become infected. Your family’s risk of becoming infected increases if the hotel caters to frequent travelers or travelers who have visited developing countries, and if those travelers stayed at inexpensive accommodations.
Moreover, within hotels, the bugs can migrate from one room to another via crevices in the walls and water pipes. Most hotels do not routinely spray for bedbugs.
2. But you can become infected elsewhere. Occasionally bedbugs hitch rides on people’s clothing and end up in movie theaters, taxis, waiting rooms, day care centers, and schools. Outbreaks have occurred in summer camps, college dormitories, hospitals, and nursing homes.
3. Know what you are looking for. Adult bedbugs are reddish-brown in color, oval in shape, and about the size of an apple seed. They crawl, but slowly, and cannot fly. Tiny blackish-red spots and smears on sheets and mattresses may be their droppings. Typically they avoid light, coming out of hiding at night to feed. They feed about every five to ten days but, amazingly, can go a year without feeding.
4. Know where to look. The bugs encamp in and around beds to be close to their main food source, human blood. Look for them in mattress seams, bed linens, bed frames and nearby furniture, and under carpet edges. A flashlight can help you find them.
5. Avoid getting bitten. Likely, the more stars your hotel has, the smaller the chances that they have bedbugs. Preventing infestation is expensive; it requires training housekeepers to look for them, hiring exterminators, and taking rooms out of service.
If you suspect bedbugs, pull beds away from the wall if possible and keep bedding from coming into contact with the floor. Keep clothing in tightly-shutting luggage or in plastic bags, not on the bed, in drawers or on the floor. Use closets far from beds. Obviously, if you find bugs or their droppings, ask for a different room or go to another hotel.
6. Bedbugs do not transmit disease. Though studies show that the bugs can ingest various disease-causing organisms while taking a blood meal, they appear to be unable to pass these organisms on to the next individuals that they bite.
But sometimes adults knowing that they or their children have been bitten by bedbugs have significant psychological reactions. They become obsessed with bed bugs, become nervous, and have difficulty sleeping. Speaking to a person who is knowledgeable about the bugs can be helpful.
7. Identifying bed bug bites is difficult. People vary greatly in how they react to such bites – from almost no reaction to red bumps, and, rarely, severe hive-like swellings around the bite site. The lesions appear immediately or in a day or two, and closely resemble other insect bites, though bedbug bites remain open longer and cause more itching.
8. Keep bite sites clean with soap and water. Apply an antibiotic cream to prevent infection. To relieve itching, use hot compresses or hydrocortisone ointment or take oral antihistamines. For severe reactions, seek medical attention. While treatment reduces itching, it does not shorten the duration of the rash.
9. Keeping bedbugs out of your home. In case of possible exposure, place clothing in plastic bags until you wash them in warm water or have them dry-cleaned. Vacuum the inside of travel luggage.
10. “Debugging” your house may require professional exterminators. More bedbugs are becoming resistant to insecticides. Other insecticides are toxic for humans, especially for young children, and particularly so because insecticides must be used on and around mattresses. The bugs cannot be lured by bait and traps. Various advertised non-toxic methods of killing the bugs – ultrasonic devices, for example, appear ineffective. Professional exterminators make use of bedbug-sniffing dogs to find them and steam or freezing techniques to kill them, for example.