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Life hacks for frequent travellers: Bed Bugs

by Marion Wotton
in Travel, Holidays, Global Mobility, Family
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Bed bugs are awful on several levels. Their bites itch to blazes. Once in a property it is very difficult to contain them. It can be both costly and time consuming to eradicate an infestation. Finally, they are very easy to bring home as an unintended, very unwelcome souvenir.

a bed bug

What are Bed Bugs?

Bed Bugs are reddish-brown, small, flat, parasitic insects. They can range from 1 – 7mm in size, and are wingless. They feed solely on the blood of people or warm-blooded animals whilst they sleep, and can live for several months at a time between feeding.

Where are they found?

Infestations are a global problem – they are no longer the preserve of developing nations and downmarket youth hostels. There have been instances of Bed Bug infestations at 5* hotels, resorts, cruise ships, trains … It must be noted that their presence does not reflect the cleanliness (or otherwise) or where they are found!

Bed bugs on upholstered furniture

The bugs primarily live in soft furnishings in spaces where people sleep – examples of prime bug real estate are mattresses, bed bases, bedframes and headboards, exposed floorboards, lounges or behind wallpaper. They tend to nest within a 2m radius of a sleeping area.

How do they spread?

Bed bugs are expert hitchhikers, and they tend to spread when people travel, or when the item that they are nesting in (say, a mattress) is physically moved. It’s not unknown for bed bugs to hide in the crevices, seams or folds of luggage or soft bags – meaning that most of the time that travellers are transporting the bed bugs, they are blissfully unaware.

And here we have the problem that frequent travellers face – how can I try and minimise the chances of unwittingly bringing these insects home with me?

What health risks do they pose?

The bites from bed bugs usually look similar to those caused by mosquitos and fleas – a raised, hard and itchy lump. Symptoms can vary in their severity, with those who have an allergy to the bugs tending to experience very large and painful swellings.

The best treatment is to apply an antiseptic to the bite and take an antihistamine (or apply a topical antihistamine cream).

How to minimise the chance of bringing bed bugs home?

The first and most important step is to check the hotel room for any tell-tale signs of bugs. Check the bedhead, behind any framed pictures above the bed, inside drawers of bedside tables, etc.  Things you need to be on the look-out for are

  • dark, ground-pepper like spots on the bedsheets or between the mattress and box-spring base
  • shed bug ‘casings’ in dresser drawers, on the floor, etc (bugs moult in the same manner as crabs when they grow)
  • bed bug eggs, which look like tiny, white grains of rice
  • the bugs themselves

Do not put your luggage on the bed when unpacking or packing! Use the provided luggage spaces, and keep your luggage at least 1.5m from the sleeping area (if possible). Bed bugs are very unlikely to live in a bathroom (too many hard surfaces) – it’s always an option to store luggage there … or at least while you’re checking the room.

suitcase on luggage rack in hotel room

If you want to take extra precautions, you can place your clothes within sealed, zip-lock plastic bags, and take a garbage bag to place your suitcase/ bag in whilst it is in the hotel room.

What to do if you accidentally bring some home?

The best, most sure fire way to eliminate bed bugs is heat treatment. Unfortunately insecticide treatments are no longer 100% effective and it can take several treatments to kill off all the bugs.

Heat treatment for luggage would be placing the items in a black garbage bag, seal it closed and leave it in direct sunlight for a week. The heat generated within the bag should be sufficient to kill any stowaways. Alternatively you can use something like this luggage heater.

Clothing should be washed on a hot cycle (60ºC), tumble dried and ironed. Those items that cannot be heat treated can be placed in sealed plastic bags and put in the freezer for 24hrs.

If you suspect bed bugs have hitched a ride with you, from a monetary perspective it’s much better to treat your luggage. Even if this means throwing away otherwise good clothes and a suitcase. Costs for large scale debugging can vary – in Hong Kong it can be as little as HK$1,500 (c. GBP £150) up to the region of HKD$18,000 (c. GBP £1,800).

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