Many of us grew up with our parents tucking us in saying, “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite!” I didn’t realize until I was an adult and traveling around that bed bugs were a real thing, rather than a fictional creature that plagued bad little girls and boys. Sadly, I’ve learned over the years that the pesky little creatures are indeed real. And that an attack can happen before you know it. Sometimes without you even knowing it.
Here’s how to recognize an encounter and what to do if you have.
What are bed bugs?
Bed bugs are insidious little parasites that tend to feed on humans when they are tucked safely in bed. Most of the time, people don’t even realize until the next day that they’ve been the all-you-can-eat buffet for the creatures. While there are different varieties, the most commonly encountered ones have flat, brown oval bodies and are about the size of an apple seed when they’ve reached full maturity. If you encounter young or hungry ones, they may be translucent. In other words, they look like little beetles.
It is important to note that bed bugs are not an indication of filth or dirtiness. In fact, bed bugs tend to shy away from dirty places but do enjoy hanging out in clutter. What they do like are clean, dry, warm places that allow them to hunker down in peace. You know, places like mattress seams, pillows, baseboards, or crevices and cracks in furniture.
Often encountered in shared sleeping places (hotels, hostels, shelters, etc.), they often go undetected until they’ve established their own little ecosystem due to the rapid turnover of the hosts that feed them. They are opportunistic little buggers that have no qualms with burrowing into the dirty clothes (clutter) you threw in the corner of your hotel room and catching a ride in your suitcase to your next hotel room or home.
How do you know you’ve encountered bed bugs?
Part of the reason bed bugs spread like wildfire is that people don’t always realize they’ve had an encounter. Mostly because they feed mostly at night while their hosts are sleeping, but also because people don’t expect them to be in a nice, clean hotel room. And because the expectation is not there and the stay may be short, it is very easy to overlook the bites they leave behind.
Often, and most recognizable, bites will present themselves as little red dots lined up in a row. But that is not always the case. They also show up looking like the ever common pimple, blemish, or mosquito bite scattered or loosely grouped over your body. (Here are some examples of a quick Google search!) It often takes more than a couple of days to really clue into what is happening.
Take for example my recent encounter (at a very nice hotel that will remain unnamed because it truly is a great place to visit).
- Morning 1: I wake up with a couple of pimply looking spots on one side of my neck. A bit odd, but since I was in a tropical place and had been sweating with a new sunscreen on, I didn’t think much of it.
- Morning 2: I wake up with a few red splotches on my body. I’d been hanging out on the beach in a bikini, so perhaps I’d been bitten by mosquitos.
- Morning 3: I see a line up of dots along my ankle as I’m putting on sunscreen. Uh-oh! Discuss it throughout the day with the hubby. I’m saying I’m pretty sure that’s what it is, he’s not convinced because the place is immaculately clean, we’d been outside a lot, had left the windows open to enjoy the cool ocean breeze.
- Morning 4: I wake up to find a series of red dots that looked like a toddler trying to write “LOVE” on my ankle. Ugh! Bedbugs or not, I don’t want whatever it is coming home with me, so it’s time to mitigate damages.
What do you do when you’ve encountered bed bugs?
First and foremost, there’s really no reason to freak out if you’ve encountered bed bugs. Bed bug bites, just like mosquito or ant bites, tend to go away on their own after 7-10 days. And just like other bites, you don’t want to scratch them. If they itch or swell up, calamine lotion or a steroid cream will help alleviate the discomfort and possibly help speed up the fading process.
What you do want to pay attention to is not bringing them home with you. Here are a few tips for leaving the buggers behind:
- Put any clothes you have put on the floor or bed into a plastic bag BEFORE putting them in your suitcase. Most hotels provide a plastic laundry service bag and I’ve found housekeeping is more than happy to give you additional one. But any plastic shopping bag will suffice.
- Don’t bring your suitcase into your home. Leave it in your garage or on your patio until you can unpack it. If you have to bring it into your home, put it in a big plastic bag and tie it up until you can deal with the contents.
- As you unpack, clothes go straight in the wash. Most websites say hot water, but keep in mind that the “sanitary” cycle on many modern machines could cause colors to fade and literally ruin a whole load of clothes. Use your judgement on this one.
- Vacuum out your suitcase and any smaller packing bags that you’re not able to throw in the wash.
- For good measure, put your bag in the freezer for 5 days. I know not everyone has the luxury of having freezer space, so wrap it up in a plastic bag.
New York City, to prevent a city-wide infestation, produced at great resource with their Healthy Homes Guide: Preventing and Getting Rid of Bed Bugs Safely.
If you have had an encounter, be sure to let the facility know. Tell them the specific room, why you think it’s a problem, and show them photos if you happened to have taken them. Trust me, they want to know. Expect them to tell you how they go about cleaning and fumigating and how it couldn’t possibly be. Rest assured that reputable places will discreetly handling the situation in the background because bed bugs are their worst nightmare.
How do you protect yourself from bed bugs in the first place?
While insidious, bed bugs really aren’t that stealthy. It’s easy to check your accommodations.
- Rather than putting your luggage on the bed, floor, or furniture, put it in the bathtub. Bed bugs can’t crawl over the slippery surface.
- Pull back the bed linens and look for bugs hanging out on the sheets.
- If you’re really concerned, you can also check the cushions of the furniture.
- If you see bugs, let the front desk know right away and ask for a different room.
I hope that you never have the “pleasure” of encountering bed bugs. But if you do, I’m hopeful this blog post will help you out. Have I missed anything? Let me know in the comments.