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Bedbugs: These Days a Traveler’s Biggest Risk

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By Bobbly L. Hickman

It seems 2010 has been the “Year of Bedbugs”. Frequent media reports about infestations in upscale New York City hotels and clothing boutiques have put the pesky little critters at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Travelers are increasingly reporting bedbug bites in unexpected venues, and even the savviest veterans are scrambling for information of how to protect themselves while on the road.

One of my frequent traveler friends reported checking into a clean, comfortable Louisiana hotel in August. She awoke in the middle of the night with small itchy bites on her ankles. When she pulled back the covers, she saw a dozen small reddish brown insects in the middle crawling around. “Could those be bedbugs?” she wondered, never having encountered the pests before. A quick Google search turned up photos that matched her bedmates: tiny roach-like bugs that measure less than a quarter-inch long.

Sadly, my friend’s experience is not unique. Scientists say bedbugs have made a comeback since they were almost wiped out in much of the world by DDT in the 1940s. More frequent international travel and fewer pesticides to control bedbugs allowed the blood suckers to spread faster than bad vampire movies.

Much of the attention has focused on New York City, where city officials report receiving 20 times more complaints than they did five years ago. Infestations have closed down a Victoria’s Secret outlet and an Abercrombie and Fitch store, plus a Hollister store, all in Manhattan. Pop singer Lauren Hildebrandt and her mother were bitten by bedbugs at an unnamed luxury hotel in Union Square. And bedbugs have hit the offices of CNN and Elle magazine, along with a Brooklyn hospital. Even search giant Google has not been spared. A portion of the Internet company’s offices in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood have recently been found to harbor the little pests. The city has set aside half a million dollars this year to tackle the problem.

Terminix, the pest control company, ranks the top three US cities reporting bedbug problems as New York, Philadelphia and Detroit. But bedbugs are also on the rise in other parts of the U.S., as well as in the United Kingdom and other developed countries.

Fortunately, experts say bedbugs are rarely more than a nuisance. They are not known to transmit diseases. Also, bedbugs are not a sign of unclean conditions: they can be found anywhere. They hitchhike from place to place on luggage and briefcases, so hotels, restaurants and stores that cater to international travelers are at higher risk for attracting the little pests. Their bites are not poisonous; like mosquito bites, itching can easily be treated with topical ointments.

Bedbugs are also tough to wipe out. They can go months without feeding, so they can survive long periods of time in vacant rooms, remote cabins and cruise ships. When hotels, homes and stores are infected with bedbugs, it usually takes a professional pest control service to wipe them out.

How can you guard against bedbugs in your hotel room? Here are a few tips:

  • Know your prey. Bedbugs are tiny – maybe the size of an apple seed. The young ones are clear while the adults are reddish brown, sort of like a small cockroach. If they’ve fed recently, they swell larger, and the young nymphs will have a reddish coloring.
  • When you first check into your room, put your luggage in a bathroom or other tiled area. Bedbugs prefer carpet and crevices, but can be anywhere. They are easier to spot on a tile floor or countertop, so start your inspection here before you unpack.
  • Pull back the sheets, blankets, etc., and examine everything on the bed: mattress, dust ruffle, pillow cases and so on. Check seams very carefully.
  • Bedbugs usually come out at night, so they may be hard to spot when you arrive. Look for small blood stains, tiny fecal matter or other signs that may indicate bugs have been on the mattress recently.
  • Despite their name, these sneaky pests are also found outside the bed. They like crooks and crannies and crevices where they can hide. So look at cabinet edges, drawers, closets, baseboards — anywhere that might offer them shelter.
  • If you find evidence of bedbugs, call the front desk and insist on another room. There’s nothing they can do short-term to get rid of the bugs; they’ll need to seal off the area and get professional treatment.

There are also steps you can take to keep bedbugs from hitching a ride on your luggage at airports and other transportation centers. You can seal your luggage in a large plastic bag before you drop check your luggage, although that may be inconvenient. There are pesticide sprays you can apply that provide some protection from unwanted stowaways. Also, don’t leave your luggage on the floor: even if your accommodations have no bedbugs, they can wander in from a neighboring room on the carpet. That’s why many advise to keep luggage in the bathroom or inside the tub, since tile seems to hold no allure for them.

My friend who encountered the Louisiana bedbugs is now super-cautious when she checks into a new venue. She strips the bed, inspects the draws and searches her room for any signs of possible infestation. The last time we were on the same trip to Tennessee, it took her an extra hour to unpack. You may not feel the need to be that thorough. But she’s determined that on her future trips, she’s not going to bring home any unwanted guests, let alone be their meal ticket.

Have you ever had to deal with these pests? Does travel hold less allure for you because of this resurgence? Please share your comments and what you do to avoid bedbugs when you travel.

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