Can Staying in a Hotel Make You Sick — or Even Kill You?

A hotel stay can go very wrong. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Ronni Kenoian swears she wakes up feeling sick every time she stays in a hotel, “I start coughing, my contacts that I sleep with are very dry.”

For Kenoian, it might be allergies: for many people, even a slight change in environment can lead to sneezing fits and a slew of breathing problems.

She’s lucky that it’s not something worse.

The scary reality is that hotels can make you sick. There have been recent high-profile cases where guests have become critically ill after a stay in a hotel. In March, a Delaware family was poisoned while vacationing at a U.S. Virgin Islands resort that had illegally used pesticides. Earlier this year, public health inspectors launched an investigation and issued a public health advisory after guests came down with norovirus after staying at a Nashville hotel.

Here’s what you should — and shouldn’t worry about — the next time you check in.

Carbon Monoxide

The scary thing is: carbon monoxide isn’t visible. (Photo: Thinkstock)

In 2013, at the Blue Ridge Plaza Best Western in Boone, North Carolina three people, including an 11-year-old boy, died within months of each other after staying in a room filled with carbon monoxide. Investigators blamed the leak on a faulty pool water heater. The hotel is no longer in operation.

The shocking truth is that very few hotels in the U.S. are equipped with carbon monoxide alarms, which detect a build-up of the toxic colorless gas when fuel-burning devices are not properly ventilated.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a group that helps promote carbon monoxide safety, CO is called the “invisible killer” because it’s undetectable to the human senses. So, people may not know that they are being exposed.

Related: Travel Fever (the Bad Kind): What to Do When You Get Sick On Vacation

Thomas G. Daly, a hospitality consultant who spent 24 years working at Hilton Hotels Corporation, says most hotel guestrooms lack fuel-fired appliances, so “there is no need for CO alarms in guestrooms.”

But the law is starting to change.

North Carolina and a growing number of other states are starting to require CO alarms. The updated International Fire Code (IFC) now calls for CO alarms in or near boiler rooms, pool heater rooms, rooms with fireplaces, and other areas with equipment capable of producing CO.

“By having the CO alarm directly in those spaces, any potential CO exposure would trigger the alarms and provide the earliest possible notification to occupants and response from staff,” says Daly.

Owen Davis, senior communications manager at the National Fire Protection Association says it is still good practice for travelers to buy a carbon monoxide alarm. “Hotel guests can put it on the nightstand or really anywhere in the room,” says Davis. “If it goes off, be sure to get outside the room as quickly as possible to fresh air. Once outside, call the fire department.”

First Alert sells a $50 device on Amazon. In the comments section, several customers noted they bought one after hearing about the lack of detectors in hotels.


Norovirus, it’s not just on cruise ships. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Travelers often associate this super-contagious stomach bug with cramped cruise ships. But norovirus can also can afflict hotel guests.

In January and February, Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland hotel had outbreaks of the nasty stomach virus. In late October, 60 people got sick at the Hotel Sofitel, a luxury hotel in Redwood City, California. And in April, a British seaside resort made international headlines when 100 people got violently ill.

Most people get sick by either ingesting contaminated food or liquid, putting their fingers in their mouth after touching objects with norovirus, or encountering direct contact with someone who has it. About 24 hours later, vomiting and diarrhea starts.

Of course, good hygiene (like washing hands and not touching the face) is always a smart idea. But it won’t guarantee you’ll be germ free.

“There is no one sure thing that you can do to make sure that you do not come in contact with norovirus while staying in a hotel or motel. Viruses are too small to be seen and we really don’t have a good test kit to determine if norovirus is present in a room,” says Dr. Aaron Margolin, a professor of microbiology at the University of New Hampshire.

Related: Norovirus — Don’t Call It ‘the Cruise Ship Disease’

Some health inspectors even go so far as to encourage hotel management to scan room service orders for dry toast and ginger ale as a way to prevent gastrointestinal illness outbreaks. Nervous guests could also make their own assessment by perusing the hotel gift shop. If the Pepto-Bismol is running low, it could be a sign.

“There are several kits that rely on an UV light to detect body fluids, but I am not sure everyone wants to spend their vacation scanning their room and every place they go while on vacation followed by trying to disinfect the entire room. Mind you, even a clean room can contain norovirus, but if the room looks clean it makes me feel good and so I use that as a barometer.”

If you do get ill when staying at the hotel, tell the front desk so the hotel can deep clean the room after you check out. The hotel may also contact the health department, if necessary.


Pesticides — what you should be aware of. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Banned pesticides gained national attention in March when a family was poisoned by them while staying at the Sirenusa resort on St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In that alarming case, an applicator for the company Terminix used methyl bromide to fumigate a nearby room. The gas is highly toxic to humans and indoor use is illegal.

Ronald D. Gardner, who runs the Pesticide Management Education Program (PMEP) at Cornell University calls it a rare case. “I was surprised by the methyl bromide use in VI,” he said. “Very bad decision on the part of someone.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has jurisdiction and authority under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) to regulate pesticides, is investigating the incident.

The case has alarmed many travelers, who are now raising questions about the use of pesticides for controlling insects, rodents, birds, bacteria, or weeds at hotels. But as Gardner sees it, this one incident caused more confusion and misinformation on a very broad topic. He says the incident that happened in U.S. Virgin Islands would simply not happen in the continental United States. “The sale of Methyl Bromide is highly restricted,” he said.

In short: relax.

“There are very limited chances for exposure to pesticides for a hotel guest. The employees that apply the pesticide are at a greater risk of exposure,” Gardner told Yahoo Travel.

But when it comes to international travel, Paul Towers, a spokesperson for the Pesticide Action Network says there may be reason to worry, “many countries have weak or lax laws when it comes to hazardous pesticide use. Travelers may be exposed to pesticides and attribute the illness to something else.”

In Thailand, two sisters from Canada died after a hotel stay. An autopsy indicated the women were most likely poisoned by phosphine, a deadly chemical used in Southeast Asia to exterminate bugs.

Towers suggests when travelers arrive in their room, they should open doors and windows and turn on any fans to let the room air out.

“For those hoping to minimize exposure, they should also speak to hotel or property management in advance of their stay and ask what chemicals are used, and if any, whether they use a certified applicator,” says Towers.

For more information about pesticide use internationally, travelers can refer to the EPA’s Office of Pesticides Program, which works with some international organizations to help promote human health safety.

Bed Bugs

Bed bugs are not your friends. (Photo: Blaine Mathison/CDC)

Just mentioning these little critters probably makes your skin crawl. Although not known to transmit disease, no one wants to imagine these vampire-like parasitic insects snacking on us while asleep.

In 2010, the CDC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a joint statement citing “an alarming resurgence in the population of bed bugs” in apartments, shelters, rooming houses, hotels, nursing homes, hospitals, cruise ships, buses, trains, and dorm rooms.

It wasn’t clear why the bugs, nearly eradicated in mid-1900s, decided to come back from the dead.

Health officials listed a variety of possible contributors including pesticide resistance, greater international and domestic travel, lack of knowledge on how to control bugs due to their prolonged absence, and lack of effective pest control programs at state and local public health agencies.

Related: Are These the Dirtiest Hotels in America?

“I don’t want travelers to become fearful or reclusive, but bed bugs are here to stay,” says Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association (NPMA). Her organization, which represents 7,000 pest companies, recently put out a report stating that there had been another rise in reported incidents at hotels.

While there are well-publicized incidents occurring even at luxury hotels like New York’s Ritz Carlton, the American Hotel & Lodging Association issued a statement saying any increase in bed bugs has had a minimal impact on the vast majority of hotels: “Bed bugs are brought into hotels by guests; it is not a hotel sanitation issue. Education, awareness, and vigilance are critical. A trained and knowledgeable housekeeping staff is one of the best lines of defense, along with having regular pest control inspections.”

Many hotels now do regular monitoring. Heat, chemical treatments (Not DDT, that its now banned), steaming, vacuuming, and freezing, often times in combination, are common ways to try to get rid of them.

Travelers can post bed bug sightings on, but there is no way to gauge accuracy or fake reviews.

Those who are concerned about bed bugs can also play pest detective and do a quick inspection before calling it a night. Check box spring and headboards for fecal signs. Gross, yes. But it’s the easiest way to know if you aren’t alone.

“Being aware of surroundings while staying in hotel rooms and utilizing public transportation, as well as carefully inspecting luggage and clothes upon return from vacation, can go a long way in ensuring bed bugs don’t follow [you] home,” said Henriksen, who by the way, says she has never seen a bed bug during a hotel stay.


We’ve all heard enough stories about hotel room germs to make us squirm. Who could forget that undercover investigation exposing dirty hotel drinking glasses? Or the study about sky-high bacteria on TV remotes?

Hotel bedspreads also got a bad rap when one was used as evidence during the Mike Tyson rape trial years ago. At the time, the American Hotel & Lodging Association got inundated with inquiries about it, and released this statement: “The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in Atlanta, Georgia reports it has NEVER identified, seen, or classified ANY significant disease outbreak in hotel or motel rooms as a result of hotel bedspreads and blankets”.

But in an effort to squash possible negative perceptions, some brands like Marriott and Hampton Inn started ditching bedspreads in favor of washable duvet covers. Hampton Inn even left sticky notes on clean beds to put guests at ease.

Tweets about Hampton Inn’s new sticky pad program. (Photos: Twitter)

For Jessica Snyder Sachs, a science writer and author of “Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health and survival in a Bacterial World” she doesn’t listen to all the noise about germs lurking in hotel rooms, “I say, relax. Yes, you are touching where someone else touched — we do that in our everyday lives. We aren’t meant to live in a sterile world.”

That doesn’t mean Sachs disregards all health precautions. She uses hand sanitizers during cold and flu months and gives hotel glasses an extra rinse, but that’s the extent of her pro-activeness.

Related: Fact: People are Gross. And These B&B Owners Have the Evidence to Prove It

The reality is, there is a significant incentive for hotels to keep rooms as clean as possible. Studies suggest room cleanliness is directly linked to overall guest satisfaction and repeat business.

Janet Wiggins, president of the International Executive Housekeepers Association, says knowing whether a hotel follows best practices can give guests peace of mind, “if guests are concerned and want to know about cleaning protocols, just ask. Go to the front desk and inquire about the products and processes they use. Find out if they use green cleaning chemicals or how often rooms are deep cleaned.”

Allergies and Asthma

A hotel might not be good for your allergies. (Photo: Thinkstock)

For millions of Americans with allergies, hotels can exacerbate allergies and asthma. That’s why Dr. Philip Tierno Jr., a professor of Microbiology & Pathology at New York University School of Medicine, NYU Langone Medical Center, always brings a pillow cover (and sometimes a mattress cover) when staying overnight at a hotel.

For Tierno, this is not overdramatizing. He knows too much about what he describes as a “zoological and botanical park” prospering in mattresses. He said that there’s a wide range of debris that can find its way into the core of a mattress and pillow without barrier protection: “Debris such as human skin cells, human hair, dust mites (which feed on human cells), dust mite feces, insect parts, bodily secretions, animal hair and dander, fungi, fungal spores, bacteria, chemicals, dust, lint, fibers, food stuff, particulates, pollen, soil, sand, cosmetics, lotions, oils, and many other things.

Tierno says breathing this stuff in for eight hours of sleep is what causes the issues: “It becomes an allergic problem even without having allergies or being an asthma person. You can develop stuffy nose, difficulty breathing, and headaches,” he said. “it’s an allergy event to worry about.”

In rooms, there could also be deterioration from mold and bacteria in ductwork, walls, carpets, and furniture. Another concern: steady flow of pollution, chemicals and contaminants pulled into hotel rooms from the hallway.

While there are no enforceable federal standards on hotel air quality, Mark Leahy, senior marketing manager at Cintas, a company that provides cleanroom assessments, says hoteliers are certainly more aware of guest room air quality, “Many brands now have strict guidelines in place specifying how frequently properties are required to deep clean their guest rooms.”

Related: Allergy-Free Travel Locations: These Places Are Nothing to Sneeze At

A growing number of hotels brands — like Kimpton, Hyatt, Hilton, Fairmont, Marriott, Doubletree, Sheraton, and NYLO, to name a few — have also introduced hypoallergenic rooms.

While some call the idea a clever marketing attempt geared for hypochondriacs and neat freaks, many hotels were simply propelled by demand.

“We have long lists of requirements for guests who have issues with those feather down duvets or concerns over chemical cleaning products or pet-free floors,” says Tom Waithe, the Regional Director of Operations for Kimpton Hotels of the Pacific Northwest, which now offers hypoallergenic rooms.

The MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas introduced “Stay Well” rooms with features like filtered tap water, hypoallergenic bedding, and the promise of only green approved cleaning products being used. The rooms were designed by Delos Hospitality, a wellness consulting company supported by Dr. Deepak Chopra. The hotel, unsure of the initial response, did a trial roll out of 42 “Stay Well” rooms. Demand grew, and the hotel recently expanded the concept to an entire floor of 171 green rooms and suites, says Travis Lunn, vice president of hotel operations for MGM Grand.

A word about air conditioners

Many travelers swear that hotel air conditioning units are a source for getting sick. Some health experts say good air conditioning can actually help overall air quality and decrease humidity. But others are positive AC — especially a dirty unit — will do more harm than good.

So how can travelers gauge the quality of hotel air conditioning?

Cintas’ Leahy says guests can try to check for signs of neglect, even when components are enclosed. “One thing to check is whether there is visible dust on the exterior casing of the AC unit,” he said. “Another thing to consider is how long it takes the unit to satisfy temperature changes made to the thermostat. A properly cleaned unit typically has better airflow and will satisfy the thermostat more quickly.”

Also, if a room smells strange or seems humid or damp, it could signal an air-quality problem. In that case, request another room.

Find the real facts

Some state health department (Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, to name a few) post annual hotel inspection reports for the public to view online. The reports may show if a hotel got caught not washing bed sheets or is spick-and-span. Plus, a quick online news search of a hotel name can easily turn up any red flags.

But while health inspections do help keep standards it place, they does not tell the whole story. For example, budget-strapped states may be slow responding to complaints or hotel management enacted significant changes since the last inspection.

What else can travelers do?

Guests can get a sense for what their overall hotel experience may be like by checking hotel review sites.

On TripAdvisor, out of 200 million reviews there are currently 87,000 with the word “allergies,” over 19,000 reviews that include the word “chemical” or “bedbug,” and over 270,000 that use the term “sick” when describing an experience at hotels and restaurants around the world.

Using filter words like “clean room” or “good sleep” may also be helpful when choosing where to stay away from home.

Related: Travel Etiquette: How to Behave at a Hotel

The bottom line: with 5 million guest rooms and 53,000 hotels or motels in the U.S. alone, the odds of something terrible happening are pretty slim.

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