Those of us with an itch to travel the world are increasingly at risk for an itch of a different kind: a bedbug bite. And if you’ve got one, chances are you’re going to end up with a lot more. Like boogers and bad habits, bedbugs easy to pick up but hard to get rid of. Which is why, when Whitney and I awoke one morning a couple weeks ago with several new, itchy bites scattered around our bodies, we went into panic mode.
If you’re like me, prior to the past couple years the only reference you ever heard to bedbugs was in a sleep-time rhyme. But recently that’s changed; countless stories in the media have bullhorned the fact that bedbugs are on the rise again. Why, you ask? Well, flashpackers, there are a number of factors contributing to their resurgence, but people like us are owed much of the blame.
Back in the heyday of indiscriminate DDT spraying, bedbugs (and bald eagles and brown pelicans and peregrine falcons and so on…) were begging for mercy; in fact, they were nearly DDT’d into extinction. Unfortunately, due to its similarly deleterious effects on human development and cognition (and bald eagles and brown pelicans and peregrine falcons and so on…), DDT was summarily banned for domestic use by the U.S. government on the last day of 1972, and much of the developed world followed suit. Bird populations thankfully rebounded, but so did those dastardly bedbugs. The increasing ease of international travel seems to be one of the main culprits.
Bedbugs are expert hitchhikers; they travel the world on our dimes, comfortably stashed away inside our luggage until they get hungry and decide to stretch their legs. The ninjas of the insect world, they go completely unnoticed until it’s too late. By the time you’re aware of them, they’re everywhere and they’re peckish and they’re notoriously hard to kill.
The bites bedbugs leave behind are easy to confuse with mosquito bites, so many bedbug victims are tardy in suspecting an infestation. Although they’re not so tiny as to be invisible — about half a centimeter in length full grown, they resemble ticks with stubby legs — bedbugs tend to feed at night, so your best chance of spotting one is by flashlight. During the daytime, while they’re plotting nightly terror raids around your sleeping body, they occupy tough-to-examine nooks and crannies: the narrow crevasses in hardwood floors and furniture frames, the gaps between couch cushions, and the lips and folds of mattresses, box springs, carpeting, and wallpaper. So on and so forth.
Once identified, bedbugs can be astonishingly difficult to eradicate. Various websites we’ve consulted have recommended everything short of salting our floor with plutonium particles to kill them. Pesticide fumigations aren’t always effective; bedbugs have grown resistant to certain chemicals, so a treatment might merely scatter them to new areas, worsening the infestation. You can try to starve them, but adults can survive for up to two months without eating, so staying in a hotel for a few days or weeks will only try their patience.
So we’ve spent the past couple weeks committing acts of lunacy to get rid of them: boiling our clothes, storing our books in the freezer and then stuffing them into plastic bags to bake in the sun, shuttling daily back and forth to the dry cleaners with garbage bags full of garments and luggage, and spraying enough insecticide around the apartment to cause permanently bloodshot eyes and frqeuent and unintetnional misplelings.
The real lingering effects of a bedbug assault are clearly psychological as much as physical. If they’ve spread throughout a dwelling, a successful treatment can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Just the thought of that is enough to keep me awake at night. Since we discovered our bites, I’ve been jolted awake several times by the merest inkling that something is scurrying around on a part of my body, only to comb the area manically by cell-phone light and find nothing at all. As if I needed a new mental disorder, I’m becoming a paranoid insomniac.
On the spectrum of things you want to host in your home, bedbugs are definitely on the undesirable end, somewhere between a Kiss concert and a conflagration.
A few travel tips to avoid picking up pestilential passengers while you’re away:
Inspect hotel rooms before you settle in. Check mattress seams and carpet edges for signs of bedbug activity: the bugs themselves, of course, but also their dried blood-speck droppings or collections of tiny, sticky, white eggs.
Always carry a flashlight with you to examine your room at night if you suspect an infestation.
Try not to leave your luggage or clothes lying around on a hotel bed or floor. Hang up your clothes whenever possible and keep your luggage zipped shut and lifted off the floor, perhaps on a chair or desk.
And tell the hotel staff and fellow travelers about any bedbugs you discover.
By the way, insect repellants are ineffective against them (naturally), so if there are hungry bedbugs where you stay, you’ll only end up itching and smelling funny.
Orion’s welts? — Creepily enough, bedbugs often leave a trail of three bites arrayed in a line, usually on your lower extremities. Why they do this isn’t clear, but I have a feeling it’s just to mess with your head.
Set a trap — If you think you might have bedbugs but haven’t actually caught sight of one, try setting one of those mouse-miring glue traps near your bed or around the furniture you suspect is harboring them. Then try not to step in it. Laying down a perimeter of double-sided carpet tape around your bed will work, too.
Man’s best friend/bedbugs’ worst enemy? — Some pest control companies employ dogs that are trained to sniff out bedbug infestations, but they’re quite expensive. Come to think of it, if they could train the airport security dogs to sniff for drugs and bedbugs, many a nasty episode might be avoided.
Once you’ve identified it, here are a few suggested courses of action for dealing with an infestation:
Heat — Bedbugs can nest and lay eggs inside your clothes and luggage. The eggs are the real danger, because in only a couple weeks, the number of active bedbugs crashing at your place can explode from a few to a few dozen. Ten to twenty minutes in a medium-high heat (160°F or 71°C) electric dryer or several hours in temperatures above 120°F (49°C) will eliminate them. A surefire way to get rid of the critters is to boil your clothes for several minutes, though if you own a lot of clothes, this is extremely labor intensive and you might, as I did, end up accidentally tie-dying half your wardrobe if you’re not careful.
Cold – Bedbugs cannot survive sustained exposure to subzero temperatures, but the exposure has to be continuous for several days.
Dry cleaning — The chemicals used in dry cleaning processes will kill the bedbugs and their eggs, but keep in mind that the pre-treated, contaminated items might ferry the infestation to the dry cleaning facility.
Pesticide treatment — A recent report on London’s resurgent bedbug population stated that they’re now resistant to most of the insecticides allowed in the UK. If you decide to hire a pest control company, make sure they’ve got plenty of experience dealing with bedbugs, because to kill a bedbug you’ve got to be able to think like a bedbug.
Suck ‘em up — A thorough vacuuming of mattresses, hardwood floors, carpets, and drapes can be effective, but remember to transfer the vacuum bag into another sealed waste bag and get it outside immediately.
Food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) – A sprinkling of this chalky, pet-safe stuff around potential bedbug hiding places will dehydrate and kill the suckers.
The “Sweep the bed, Johnny!” technique — My personal favorite approach (because it’s the most vengeful) calls for you to wake just before dawn when bedbugs are most active, throw on the lights in your bedroom, sweep the scattering bedbugs into a dustpan, and immediately dump them into a pot of water to drown. Sometimes you’ve just got unleash your inner-Cobra-Kai on them.
Jedi mind tricks — Bedbugs are impervious to them, unless they’re applied in conjunction with any of the above treatments.
Good luck and safe travels! Thanks for reading…