IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers| IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers|

How to avoid bed bugs

Don’t let bed bugs hitch a ride on your next trip. These small insects love to travel and can easily move across rooms, cities, and countries.

What are bed bugs?

Bed bugs are small oval brown insects in the Cimicidae family (Cimex lectularius is the common bed bug). They don’t fly, but area very quick and can squeeze easily into cracks and crevices. Both male and female bugs bite at night by feeding on human blood. Most bed bugs only live up to 6 months, but some can live for years and can survive for months without feeding. A female bed bug will lay between 5 and 12 eggs daily, reaching up to 500 eggs within her lifetime.

Bed bugs gravitate towards areas where people and animals live because they are attracted to carbon dioxide, which is produced through breathing, and their favourite food: blood. While feeding, the bed bug injects saliva that causes skin irritation and inflammation. Scratching the bite area causes a rash that can progress to swelling and red welts on your arms, legs, face, and chest area.

At present, there is no evidence that bed bugs transmit infectious diseases. Researchers have found bed bugs can carry bacteria called Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which is highly resistant to antibiotics and can cause infection in people with compromised or weak immune systems.

How to recognize a bed bug

Since bed bugs are nocturnal, you most likely won’t see them. However, their eggs and feces betray them. Look for clusters of feces (black/brownish dots) and eggs (whitish, the size of a pinhead, in clusters of 10 to 50).

Photo by CDC/ CDC-DPDx; Blaine Mathison (Public Health Image Library ID 12704)

An adult bed bug has a brownish pear shaped body and typically measures ¼ inch or 1.9cm long – about the size of an apple seed. What is fascinating is that its body can change dramatically: before feeding a bed bug can be as thin as paper, but after feeding it becomes bloated.

Individual responses to bed bug bites can vary. In some people, bites can cause no reaction or they may be easily misdiagnosed. For others, bites may cause an obvious reaction that includes red, itchy welts on exposed skin. In fact, many people don’t realize they have a bed bug infestation until after they notice bites.

If you do have bites, try not to scratch and keep the skin clean to prevent infection. Calamine lotion helps relieve the itchiness. You can also talk to your doctor or pharmacist about getting the right antihistamines to reduce hives.

How to prevent bed bugs from hitching a ride

Before your trip

  • Learn about bed bugs and their behaviour.
  • Consult the Bed Bud Registry or Trip Advisor to see if other travellers have reported suspected bed bug infestations where you will be staying. Keep in mind that these reviews may not be reliable since they are not corroborated by an independent third party. It’s also important to remember that bed bugs don’t discriminate – whether you are staying in a five-star hotel or a one-star motel, you should always be cautious of bed bugs.
  • Bring clear or opaque plastic bags that can be properly sealed for worn clothing/laundry and to wrap your luggage. You can find extra-large plastic bags at your hardware store.
  • You may want to bring a permethrin-treated bed net. However, bed net protection will not work if the mattress is infested with bed bugs.

During travel

  • Inspect your room. Check for feces and eggs in your mattress and box spring seams, creases and folds, headboard, cushions, side table drawers, chairs, furniture, picture frames, radios, TVs, phones, clocks, baseboards, window and door casings, and any cracks and crevices.
  • If you suspect bed bugs:
  • Don’t unpack your clothes from your suitcase. Place your luggage in the bathtub or shower stall. If there is no washroom adjacent to your room, place your luggage in a large clear plastic bag and keep it away from the bed and the floor.
  • Place all clothes for laundry (including your pajamas) in a tightly sealed plastic bag to contain potentially affected clothing. To avoid escaping bed bugs back home, sort laundry in colours and place in separate plastic bags so it’s easy to load the washing machine.

When you return

  • Place your luggage in an isolated part of the house, such as your garage or porch. Thoroughly inspect the suitcase and all articles of clothing that are not sealed in a plastic bag.
  • Wash your clothes using the hottest machine setting (washing at high temperatures will kill the eggs). Some fabrics will not be able to withstand hot water, so dry-cleaning may be an option. Don’t forget to warn the dry cleaner about a possible bed bug problem.
  • Dry your clothes at the hottest setting for at least 45 minutes.
  • For suitcases and larger items that cannot be put in the washer or dryer, you can wash them with hot water (at least 37.7°C – 48.8°C or 100°F - 120°F). Use a scrub brush for the seams.
  • Items that can’t be washed can be heated or frozen. If using extreme heat, the item has to be exposed to a minimum of 45°C or 113°F for at least two hours. If you freeze the item, it should be at a minimum of -5°C or 23°F for at least 5 days or can be flash frozen at -26°C or -14.8°F. For more information, the University of Minnesota has useful tips.

If you suspect that you brought back bed bugs with you, contact a pest control company for a consultation. They will have tips on how to get rid of them and suggest a treatment schedule. There are a variety of options (but also a lot of misinformation) on both toxic and non-toxic extermination methods. Talk to a professional or a person who has successfully stopped bed bug infestations at home. Resources exist – the key is to be consistent and thorough.

Last reviewed and updated: December 11, 2020.

Photo by CDC/ CDC-DPDx; Blaine Mathison (Public Health Image Library ID 12704)

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