Don't Let The Bed Bugs Hitchhike

Inspecting Hotel Rooms, Luggage Can Prevent Infestations Of Pest While Traveling
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PJ Liesch

Bed bugs have spread across the U.S. and are a major concern for the hospitality industry.

With another busy travel season quickly approaching, many Wisconsin residents will take to the roads and skies for excursions near and far. While their biggest concern may be delays on the road or at airports, the tiny bed bug (Cimex lectularius) has the potential to end up causing big headaches for any traveler staying in hotels or other lodgings.

For those not familiar with bed bugs, these creatures may seem to be a mythical creature of nursery rhymes. Before becoming a global phenomenon, bed bugs had a humble origin as bat parasites in European caves. When humans began inhabiting such areas, the opportunistic insects shifted their feeding preferences to this new bipedal feast.

As human society developed over millennia, bed bugs spread around the globe along trade routes. But a drastic shift came after World War II with the advent of synthetic insecticides, such as DDT. The use of these products drastically cut down bed bug numbers across the globe. As a result, many Americans born after World War II have never seen or experienced a bed bug.

For that reason, a common misconception about bed bugs is that they're too small to see with the naked eye. Though tiny, bed bugs can be observed without magnification: adults are roughly the same size, color, and shape as apple seeds. Bed bugs tend to take a blood meal at night roughly once per week for 5-10 minutes at a time; they otherwise spend the vast majority of their time in sheltered cracks and crevices available in their living environment.

Bed bugs are about the size of apple seeds, and prefer to hide in narrow spaces.
PJ Liesch

Hiding places for bed bugs can include seams on mattresses and box springs, bed frames and headboards, nearby furniture, luggage racks, and just about any other nook and cranny nearby. In addition, all the zippers, pockets and seams of modern luggage brought in to a hotel room make great hiding spots for bed bugs. Unfortunately, this insects' cryptic behavior combined with their fondness for hiding in tight spots makes them excellent hitchhikers in suitcases, purses and other personal items.

Over time, resistance to synthetic insecticides developed in bed bug populations and this pest began to reemerge. Because bed bugs are excellent hitchhikers, the very act of traveling is one of the reasons for the resurgence of the insect in the U.S. By the 1990s, bed bugs had reappeared in many major cities, which tend to be hubs of travel and commerce.

In the last two decades, bed bugs spread to every state in the nation and have become a major concern for the hospitality industry. Bed bugs simply end up where humans have transported them, so they can be found in budget motels on up to five-star hotels. Luckily, many hotels take proactive steps to catch infestations when they're small and more easily controlled, and they have plans in place to quickly and effectively eliminate bed bugs when detections do occur.

While it's unlikely that that a given hotel room will have bed bugs, encounters can happen. At the least, a bed bug encounter could go unnoticed or result in a poor night's sleep. In contrast, if bed bugs hide away in luggage and are brought back home, eliminating them can easily cost hundreds of dollars and often more.

What can travelers do to protect themselves

While it may seem trivial, a simple inspection of a hotel room upon arrival is one of the best ways to identify any potential bed bug inhabitants. Upon arrival, the guest should take 5-10 minutes to examine the room. Inspections should focus on the mattress, box spring, headboard, nightstand, nearby chairs and desk, baseboards and edges of the carpeting, and the luggage rack. The main clues to look for are bed bug adults or juveniles (similar in appearance to adults, but smaller), eggs (pale, 1/16 inches long), and/or digested blood (resembling black ink splotches). The University of Minnesota Extension's "Let's Beat the Bed Bug" campaign has an excellent inspection guide for travelers.

PJ Liesch
Bed bug droppings resemble splotches of black ink.

If bed bugs are found or suspected, the guest should contact the front desk immediately — hotels typically have bed bug protocols in place to handle such situations. If the hotel does not, the guest should request a refund or another room.

In situations where returning travelers suspect they might have experienced bed bugs, a few precautions can help avoid bringing them home. A traveler should thoroughly inspect of all luggage and personal travel items. As an additional precaution, clothing can be laundered immediately upon returning home to kill any potential bed bugs using the hottest temperature for the fabrics at hand. Clothing dryers can kill all life stages of bed bugs through heat and desiccation. Any items that cannot be run through a dryer can be sealed in a plastic bag and placed in a freezer for two weeks to kill any bugs or eggs. The "Let's Beat the Bed Bug" campaign also has a useful guide for dealing for situations where bed bugs might have been brought home.

In the unfortunate case when bed bugs are brought home after travel, contacting a pest control professional is the best way to deal with the situation. Technically, bed bugs can be eliminated with do-it-yourself approaches, but these can be quite challenging, are often unsuccessful, and in some cases can make the situation worse and/or endanger people, pets or property. Pest control professionals have the proper training, knowledge, equipment and products to eliminate bed bugs through chemical and non-chemical means.

While encountering bed bugs during travel is unlikely, it's worth the time to be aware of these insects and to take precautions to avoid bringing them home.

Sleep tight, travel right, and don't let the bed bugs bite.

University of Wisconsin-Extension entomologist PJ Liesch is director of the UW-Madison Insect Diagnostic Lab, and he blogs about Wisconsin insects and can be found @WiBugGuy on Twitter.

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