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Don’t Let The Bedbugs Bite

Jan 1, 2005
2005 / December-January 2005

A few years ago, while staying at a seaside resort in southern New Jersey, I woke up with several bites on my neck and arms that were extremely itchy. While straightening up my bed that morning, I saw a bug crawling off the side of my bed onto the floor toward my opened suitcase. First, I screamed. Then I contacted the resort manager, who promptly suggested that I had brought the pests along in my luggage! I had traveled a good deal and had never encountered such a thing. Turns out I was dealing with bedbugs, and they were in the suite before I got there.

So what are bedbugs, and why are they bothering travelers now?

Bedbugs are an ancient bane of humans. They are even mentioned in the writings of ancient Greek philosophers. In the United States, bedbugs were pretty common up through the 1920s and 1930s. If you have relatives who grew up then, they might be able to tell you stories of a time when bedbugs were more than just part of a good-night nursery rhyme.

After WWII and the discovery of the insecticide DDT, bedbugs were pretty much under control in the United States. DDT was extremely effective at killing cockroaches, and exterminators soon discovered it also killed bedbugs. New home fashions, improvements in home design and appliances such as the vacuum cleaner and the clothes dryer also helped eradicate bedbugs. Over time, however, it was discovered that DDT was harmful to humans and our environment, so the federal government outlawed its use. And, after the ’50s, gone where the days of the biannual spring and fall house cleanings, sweeping out every corner and cranny in a house from top to bottom.

Bedbugs have made a worldwide comeback, which many experts blame on international travel and the shipping of products worldwide. People and goods are traveling more widely and in greater numbers than ever before, and bedbugs make perfect stowaways in luggage and in shipping crates. They are nocturnal, small and easily overlooked. Bedbugs are turning up in surprising places, including expensive hotels, hospitals and airports. Boston newspapers last year were full of reports on an infestation of bedbugs in college-area rental housing.

Adult bedbugs are straw-colored to reddish brown, oval-bodied, wingless insects. Before feeding on us, they are about the size of a pencil eraser and almost as flat as a piece of paper, which explains why they can fit into narrow crevices. The bedbugs’ appearance changes dramatically after they have fed on us: They become engorged and dark red in color. Bedbug eggs are white, slightly pear-shaped and about the size of a pinhead. They are found in clusters of 10 to 50 eggs in crevices.

Bedbugs feed for five to 10 minutes a night, and then fall off and crawl to a sheltered spot, where they remain for several days digesting their meal. They tend to bite all over the body, especially areas that are exposed while we sleep — the face, hands, arms and legs. Some people are hardly aware that they are being bitten, but others suffer an allergic reaction to the insect’s saliva, which is injected while the bugs feed. For these people the bites can be painful, swollen and itchy.

Bedbugs hide in the seams and on the surface of mattresses, in cracks in bed frames and in gaps behind headboards, pictures, baseboards and wallpaper. They can be found under bedside and bedroom furniture and in other bedroom “shelters.”

Travelers should be aware that bedbugs are often found in places that experience a high volume of overnight guests. Check your hotel mattress surface and seams carefully for brown stains (feces from the bugs) or the bedbugs themselves. Check your bed linens and pillowcases for bloodstains. Peek behind the headboard and the wall décor, popular hiding spots for bugs. If you do not see them or any signs of them, there should be no problem.

If it is possible, move your bed away from the wall. Tuck in bed linens and keep everything off the floor. Use the luggage valet to hold your suitcase while you are unpacking or packing your clothes. Do not keep open suitcases on the floor or on the bed. Store them high in the closet of your room.

If your hotel room is indeed infested with bedbugs, demand to be moved to another hotel or at least to another wing of the hotel immediately. If bedbugs are in one room, they are likely to have traveled to nearby rooms. Make sure to inspect your luggage and souvenirs before bringing them into your home.

Infested clothing should be washed in hot, soapy water and placed in a clothes dryer on high heat to kill the bedbug larvae. Shake out your suitcases outside or expose your bags to extreme cold, which will also kill the bugs.

Even though bedbugs feed off human blood, they do not carry infectious diseases to humans. If you are bitten, cleanse the bite areas with soap and warm water and apply over-the-counter antibacterial antiseptic ointment or cortisone ointment for the itching, as needed. Resist the urge to scratch. Apply an ice pack to relieve the swelling. See your physician if an infection develops.

For more information about bedbugs, visit http://www.uky.edu/Agriculture/Entomology/entfacts/struct/ef636.htm .


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