Bedbugs Are on the Rise in U.S. Hotels. Here’s How to Avoid Them.

This article originally appeared on Outside

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The other day I read that bedbugs are now in all 50 states and turning up in more and more hotels, even nice ones. I travel regularly, so this makes me nervous. How can I avoid bedbugs, and what’s the worst that can happen if I am bit? Also, if by chance they hitchhike back to my own home and start an infestation, what do I do? Eeeek! That's my nightmare. --Bugged Out

Your fears are totally valid. A few years ago, when I was hiking in Morocco's Atlas Mountains, I started experiencing a burning, itching sensation two hours into my five-hour trek. It was so intense that not even the surrounding snowcapped peaks could distract my urge to scratch. When my guide stopped to prepare mint tea, I finally yanked up the right sleeve of my puffy. A zigzag of tiny red bumps on my forearm confirmed my suspicion: bedbugs.

Two weeks earlier, at a conference in Marrakech, several attendees showed up with pocked faces, the result of staying at a bedbug-infested hotel in the Atlas Mountains where I was scheduled to overnight post-conference before my trek. Surely the owner would have taken care of the situation by then, I rationalized; plus, I'd only be there one night.

The line of swollen, tingling bites on my arm were proof that the hotel owner had not exterminated. By the time my guide and I reached our cabin, my skin felt like I'd rolled around in poison ivy and then was attacked by no-see-ums. It was unrelenting. Worse to me, though, was the horrifying thought of parasites crawling all over me as I slept. As fate would have it, the cabin and the previous hotel were both owned by the same proprietor; terrified of once again becoming a midnight snack, I opted to bunk in the bathtub for the next three nights.

Few bugs are as psychologically disturbing as bedbugs. By day, they lurk undetected, and by night, they emerge from the crevices of bed frames, seams of mattresses, and cracks of walls and floorboards to stick their beak into our skin and suck our blood for up to ten minutes. The bug's saliva contains an anesthetic that numbs the skin, so you never feel the bite, and the resulting red, swollen bumps could take anywhere from one to several days to even appear.

The good news is that bedbugs aren't poisonous, nor are they known to carry diseases. In rare cases, bites can cause anaphylaxis, but most people simply experience itchiness like I did. (Still others have no reaction at all.) When I got back to Marrakech, I was able to buy a skin cream with hydrocortisone to help calm the irritation, and upon return to the States, my dermatologist, who said I had an extreme reaction, suggested an oral antihistamine, like Benadryl. It took my bites over two weeks to disappear, but in most cases they're gone within a week.

Linear or zigzag bite marks indicate bedbugs
Linear or zigzag bite marks indicate bedbugs (Photo: Getty Images/Joel Carillet)

If you have been bitten, however, there's something else to worry about: any stowaways that have crawled into your belongings. If these are pesticide-resistant, they're a true pain to get rid of if they make it to your home.

After my trip to Morocco, I planned to move into a new apartment. The lease mentioned repercussions for any tenant found responsible for bringing in bedbugs, and at the time I remember thinking, Gross! What dirty person carries bedbugs?

But equating dirt with bedbugs or unclean establishments is a myth. They can be found in the cheapest hostels and the finest luxury resorts. "Unlike flies, bedbugs are not attracted to decay or the build-up of organic matter," says Eric Braun, a board-certified entomologist and technical-service manager for Philadelphia-based Ehrlich Pest Control. "Bedbugs can be found anywhere there's a population of people available to feed on."

Not willing to risk a bedbug breakout in my new apartment, I made the tough choice of leaving my luggage, including Berber carpets I'd splurged on, in Morocco. I also swore I'd never lazily throw my luggage on, or at the bottom of, my hotel-room bed again. Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist for the National Pest Management Association in Fairfax, Virginia, later explained to me that bedbugs are attracted to warmth and carbon dioxide. After a meal, they don't always return to their original hiding place. Sometimes they head to any crack or crevice close to the host--typically within five feet--and seams of backpacks and luggage are particularly inviting, especially if they're nearby.

When I told friends about my traumatizing misadventure, many shared their own bedbug horror story. As the media have reported in recent years, these insects, a terror to people for centuries, are on the rise yet again. According to the National Pest Management Association, one in five Americans has either been affected by the parasites personally or knows someone who has. In France, bedbugs have become such a menace, they're considered a national health hazard.

Hotels are particularly susceptible, due to the transient nature of their guests. One of the most recent studies, released in 2017 and conducted by Atlanta-based pest-management company Orkin, found that eight of ten U.S. hotels had dealt with bedbugs during the previous year. (And more recently, as reported in USA Today, Chicago ranked as the number one city in the nation for bedbug problems last year, followed by New York and Philadelphia.)

The pandemic has since highlighted a clear correlation between travel and bedbug occurrences, says Braun. "As travel slowed, so did the number of bedbug sightings and reports," he says. "As more people resume travel, we are noticing an uptick in bedbug reports for the hotel and hospitality industry."

According to an American Hotel and Lodging Association spokesperson, "Our members take the health and safety of their guests very seriously, and that includes ensuring pest-control procedures are in place to prevent and eradicate any pests, including bedbugs."

Can you avoid something that only comes out at night, is the size of an apple seed, and may or may not have chosen a new home in your belongings? The answer is: possibly, armed with the information below and diligence. And if you do fall prey, these smart strategies will help you deal with bites and infected luggage.

Bedbugs like to hide out in bed frames, seams of mattresses, and the cracks of walls and floorboards.
Bedbugs like to hide out in bed frames, seams of mattresses, and the cracks of walls and floorboards. (Photo: iStock/Getty Images/Dzurag)

Always Check Your Room for Signs of Bedbugs Before Settling In is a free source of bedbug reports that lets you search by specific hotel. But that alone won't be enough. Upon checking into your hotel, inspection is key. Resist the urge to flop down on your bed, and don't unpack until you do a thorough room scan, says Fredericks.

"Pull back the sheets, and inspect the mattress seams and box springs--particularly at the corners--for pepper-like stains, spots, or bedbug skins," he says. "Do not place luggage on upholstered surfaces. The safest place is in the bathroom in the middle of a tile floor, or on a luggage rack after it's been thoroughly inspected. Do not use a luggage rack if it has hollow legs, where bedbugs may hide unseen."

Bedbugs have flattened, wingless oval bodies and are red-brown in color. Because they are nocturnal, they can be difficult to detect during daylight hours, as they tend to hide in tight, dark spaces. According to Braun, three telltale signs include fecal spotting, which are stains the bugs leave behind and resemble black Sharpie marks on fabric or small bubbles on hard surfaces; cast skins, the exoskeletons from previous molts; and blood smears, indicative of a crushed bedbug.

Identifying a Bedbug Bite and Next Steps

"People usually don't notice or wake up when bitten," says Fredericks. "Although the bite is painless at the time of the attack, most people develop an allergic reaction to the saliva that is transmitted during the bite--this is what causes bites to become red, itchy, and swollen." Bedbug bites, he says, tend to be found in a linear or zigzag pattern, and anti-itch creams can be used to provide relief.

Immediately alert management of your suspicion. (In Morocco, I complained to the hotel owner, and he offered to compensate me for my losses.) Do not agree to move to a room adjacent or directly above or below the suspected infestation, says Fredericks, because "bedbugs can easily hitchhike via housekeeping carts, luggage, and even through wall sockets. If an infestation is spreading, it typically does so in the rooms closest to the origin." Hotels should reach out to certified pest-control specialists, who will vacuum, steam, or use heat treatments, and in some cases use EPA-certified pesticides, to rectify the problem.

Now it's time to address your luggage. Anything that can be laundered should immediately be placed in the dryer at a high-temperature setting, as heat will kill the bedbug and its eggs, says Changlu Wang, a professor at Rutgers University's entomology department. Afterward, pack the clean clothing in plastic bags to prevent reexposure. If you find bedbugs in or on something that cannot be laundered, he suggests freezing the items for three to four days, though he says a home freezer may not be cold enough, as most experts recommend minus four degrees Fahrenheit.

Things to Consider Upon Your Return Home

Inspect your suitcases outdoors before bringing them into the house, advises Fredericks. Thoroughly vacuum your suitcase before storing it. Consider using a garment hand steamer on your luggage, which can kill any bedbugs or eggs that may have made the trip home with you. Wash and dry all of your clothes. And if you suspect there's a chance any hitchhiking bugs may have escaped your vigilance, Fredericks recommends contacting a licensed pest professional in a timely manner--you can't expect to eradicate them yourself. "Bedbugs," he says, and as the following video demonstrates, "are not DIY pests."

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