An ER nurse shares the story of unsuspecting travelers who contracted bed bugs during their visit to the Southwest--plus tips for avoiding insect woes (and dangers) during your next vacation.
Yes. Emergency department nurse and blogger James Cobb, R.N., M.S.N., told TravelAwaits, "An encounter with bedbugs can turn into a nightmare of itchiness and discomfort." It could also pose a serious threat to your health.
According to a Penn Medicine study, bed bugs "can transmit Trypanosoma cruzi, the parasite that causes Chagas disease, one of the most prevalent and deadly diseases in the Americas"--including the United States.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resource reports that "as many as 8 million people in Mexico, Central America, and South America have Chagas disease." Most don't even know they are infected, but if left untreated, Chagas can be lifelong and life threatening. Complications can involve cardiac and intestinal problems.
Our takeaway: Avoid bedbugs.
Even if you aren't traveling in an area affected by Chagas, as Cobb mentioned, bed bugs can turn your dream getaway into a frenzied search for relief.
Consider the story of travelers Cobb helped treat:
"During my career as an emergency department nurse, I've worked in several areas of the United States that get a lot of tourists," he said. "In Arizona, a well-to-do French family was on a tour of the southwestern United States. They were going to see saguaro cactuses at the national park near Tucson and then make a quick visit to Nogales, Sonora. They wanted to check 'See Mexico' off their bucket list as well."
He said it wasn't exactly clear what kind of rash the little girl had. "Bedbug bites look like an awful lot of other things, especially when there are so many of them."
At first, their care providers were stumped.
"The diagnosis wasn't made until the mother mentioned her rash. The mother's rash was in the more characteristic 'breakfast, lunch, and dinner' pattern."
For foodies, breakfast, lunch, and dinner are among the most exciting parts of a trip, but if bed bugs are joining in on your vacation, this pattern has nothing to do with finding the best local eateries. Instead, it's a cluster or series of lesions indicative of a bedbug having moved from one spot to another for its next bite.
Naturally, you want to know how to avoid being any bug's meal during your next trip.
But let's get this out of the way: These days, serious pest infestations are rare in the hotel industry. Still, they’re certainly worth consideration, and if your travel plans include an extended stay at a lake house, rustic cabin, or less-developed area, your chances of encountering spiders, mosquitoes, and other pests, including bed bugs, will increase substantially.
Of course, even if you never leave your house, you can’t avoid insects entirely, but by taking a few common-sense steps, you can travel with peace of mind. Here’s everything you need to know about avoiding pests while you enjoy your trip.
First things first: When we say “bug spray,” we’re really talking about insect repellent--emphasis on the repellent. This stuff is powerful, and it can dissuade the hungriest critters from taking a bite out of your ankle, but it isn’t a surefire cure.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that travelers in bug-heavy areas dress to cover exposed skin. Tuck shirts into pants, pants into socks, and socks into shoes. The CDC also recommends choosing hotel rooms that have air conditioning, good windows, and screened openings.
That said, some bug sprays are generally effective at repelling particularly obnoxious insects. The gold standard for insect repellent is the same across brands: Choose something that contains 20 to 50 percent DEET.
The full chemical name for DEET is N,N-Diethyl-3-methylbenzamide, which explains why most people just call it DEET. It’s an EPA-registered chemical that masks the smell insects follow when choosing a meal. It’s widely effective against ticks, mosquitoes, and many other biting bugs.
Good examples include Cutter Backwoods and Off! Deep Woods. Pack it into your carry-on or checked bags if you’re flying; just be sure to keep the bottle under 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters), per TSA requirements.
If you don’t like the smell of DEET--and remember, neither do the bugs--you might want to try a natural bug spray. The bad news is that most of them don’t really work. A 2015 study from the Entomological Society of America concluded that, when it comes to mosquitos, DEET-rich products are the most effective repellents on the market.
That said, lemon eucalyptus oil seems to actually keep mosquitoes at bay for up to six hours. It may or may not work on other species of pests, but if you’re allergic to DEET and you’re traveling through the tropics, it should provide some protection.
All-natural repellents are typically made from chemicals that plants produce to ward off plant-eating insects, per an article in the Malaria Journal. The trouble is, plant-eating insects generally don’t bother people. Bugs that like to bite people don’t usually chow down on plants.
There’s just no evolutionary reason for plants to develop pest-proof chemicals, and that makes plant-based insect repellents few and far between. Still, if you’re willing to re-apply from time to time, lemon eucalyptus oil is a fairly effective option.
Say you’re going camping or are headed to a region where you know you’ll be meeting lots of mosquitos and ticks. How do you use a repellent effectively?
First and foremost, trust the label. Typical instructions include:
- Don’t let children apply their own bug spray.
- Wash DEET-soaked clothes before you wear them again.
- Wash your skin when you’re back to civilization.
- Spray it on over your clothes, not underneath.
- Keep it out of your mouth and eyes.
- Don’t apply bug spray to broken or injured skin.
There’s no official age restriction for the use of DEET, although the CDC does warn against applying bug repellent to babies under 2 months old. Still, kids might spray themselves in the eyes, which is no fun, and they tend to put their hands in their mouths--which is why the CDC also says you shouldn’t apply repellent to little fingers.
Clearly, we love our DEET. It’s what the health care community tends to recommend. In rare instances, though, DEET can irritate skin. Some people simply can’t stand the smell.
No worries. There are other options that, while not always as reliable as DEET, can still give you some relief from the biting, stinging swarms out there in NatureLand.
We’ve already mentioned lemon eucalyptus oil. Other EPA-registered bug sprays contain a chemical called picaridin, which mimics a spicy compound found naturally in peppercorn plants. The National Pesticide Information Center says picaridin helps keep away lots of the same biting insects that DEET repels: chiggers, fleas, ticks, flies, and, yes, mosquitoes.
Another option is a chemical called, not so prettily, IR3535. Studies have shown that it’s roughly as good as DEET, at least at repelling mosquitoes. Some users find the odor less objectionable than DEET.
When in doubt, use the EPA’s handy repellent-finder tool. It’s available here. Fill out the form to find brands and products that contain EPA-registered insect repellents according to your needs.
Even with the best bug spray in the world, though, you’ll still want to check your hotel, B&B, or campsite for the odd hidden pest nest. Fortunately, that’s a fairly simple process.
Jean Geitz is the office manager at STL Pest Control in St. Louis, and she knows a thing or two about bug infestations. She said that the best way to avoid unwelcome visitors is simply to check your room before laying down for the night.
"The best thing that you can do when you get in there is to perform a quick inspection," Geitz said. "Just turn on all the lights, and look in the upper corners. You'll see if you see some spider webs, that sort of thing. Also search around the lower baseboard and under sink areas."
Look in out-of-the-way places that housekeepers might have missed. In most cases, if bugs are thriving in your home-away-from-home, a quick look into the darkened corners of the room will reveal the problem.
"Check all of those places," Geitz said. "You'll be able to tell fairly quickly if there's any kind of infestation going on."
If you don’t see anything obvious, you’re probably in the clear. Of course, there's one type of infestation that frightens the casual hotel-goer more than any other, and it’s not always easy to immediately diagnose.
And yes, we’re talking about bed bugs.
The good news is that, these days, hotels and motels are unlikely to harbor serious pest infestations. While bed bugs are found in all 50 states, hoteliers are aware of that fact--and they certainly want to avoid the negative word-of-mouth that comes with a bed bug problem.
“Most hotels have maintained a pest control service of some sort year-round, and whether they handle pest control in-house or outsource the job to a professional, they take appropriate steps to avoid a problem,” Geitz said. “Hotel owners and managers are more aware of bed bug issues than in years past, and they’re generally more on top of those things.”
In other words, hotel managers go to great lengths to make sure there are no uninvited guests in your bedding. According to a 2017 survey from pest control provider Orkin, 82 percent of responding hotels have treated their rooms for bed bugs at some point in the previous year.
Presumably, a lot of those treatments were preventive. The average bed bug incident costs a hotel more than $6,000, according to the same Orkin study. Lodging operators take the threat very seriously, and they invest in prevention.
That said, all it takes is bad timing and bad luck to meet a pest beneath your pillow. The bed-bug inspection is a little more in-depth than scanning the room for spiders or ants.
Getting ready for the bed bug inspection is simple. If your phone has a flashlight function, turn it on, or pack a small flashlight so that you can inspect your room before unpacking your bags. Otherwise, turn on all of the lights in the room.
During the inspection, leave your clothes in your luggage and put your suitcases on the bathroom shelf or luggage rack. Don't put bags on the floor--if bugs live there, they can hop right on.
Start by looking closely at the bedding. Pull down the sheets and look for small, reddish stains. Those could be squashed bed bugs.
Check the fitted sheet and the mattress beneath, particularly along seams. In addition to those red blotches, look for tiny dots, about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
you might see some black little dots, which indicate the presence of the bugs.
If the room’s particularly infested, you might also see live bugs, which are an obvious warning sign. If you see a single bug, complain to the hotel management--there are likely other bugs that you’re not seeing. You'll also want to keep an eye out for eggs and moltings.
"Bed bug eggs and bed bug castings are a little harder to identify," said Geitz. "They are small and quite translucent. Their castings are simply their shells, which they will shed as they need to grow to the next life stage before they ultimately become adults. Some or all of those may be present.”
Once your bed is clear--or, Heaven forbid, not clear--take a look around the room.
“Bed bugs can live on any upholstered furniture, not just beds,” said Geitz. “So to be thorough, you might want to inspect chairs and couches.”
Again, look closely at seams, where bed bugs like to snuggle up. Keep your phone or flashlight handy and shine it into creases in the furniture. Finally, use your light to inspect drawer joints. Bed bugs probably won’t choose to live there, but in heavier infestations...let’s just say it’s been known to happen.
If you don’t like what you see during your bed bug check, talk to hotel management. You can always ask to move to a different room. If you’re not sure, and you’re an “abundance-of-caution” type traveler, keep out hitchhiking bed bugs by leaving your clothes in your suitcase.
“Unless you're going to stay somewhere for a week or so, [it’s] better to just leave your items in your suitcase,” Geitz said. “Maybe hang a few ... but for me, I would avoid the drawers and that sort of thing, unless I was sure it was clean and clear.”
If you’re especially paranoid--and no, we’re certainly not passing judgment--you can seal your clothes in plastic bags, then launder them as soon as you get back home.
“That might be over-the-top,” Geitz said, “but it’s effective. That way, anything that might have been exposed in a hotel room gets taken care of before you can bring the bugs into your home.”
If your skin is crawling right now, we’d like to reiterate that bed bug infestations are rare and fairly easy to identify. If you’re diligent about checking your room, you probably don’t have anything to worry about.
You might be tempted to check sites like Bed Bug Reports or the Bedbug Registry before booking your rooms. Those sites are useful, but take their reports with a grain of salt; they’re full of user-generated content, and they don’t independently verify submissions.
Hotel owners can dispute claims if they find them, but the site admins have ultimate control over the content. The Bedbug Registry will mark a page “disputed” if they receive a complaint from hotel staff. They’ll also print the hotel’s response.
Bed Bug Reports, meanwhile, asks for an extermination report before they’ll take down a claim. In both cases, note that fraudulent or vindictive reports can stay up on the site for unknown lengths of time.
We’re not saying these registries aren’t trustworthy--they may have great information. Just be aware that it’s tough to verify their claims.
If you’re traveling to a remote area, you’re going to encounter some bugs, but serious infestations are rare, particularly in hotels, motels, cabins, and other managed properties. While it makes sense to take some basic precautions, you shouldn’t let insect paranoia ruin your trip.
“Just do a quick inspection, then enjoy the experience,” Geitz suggests. “Just be very aware, and if you go out on a hike or spend time in the woods, carefully inspect yourself--or have your travel partners inspect you--when you get back, just to make sure you don’t have a little hitchhiker you weren’t counting on.”
What happens if you do encounter--or worse, wind up with a reaction from--a bed bug infestation?
Cobb said, "Treatment usually consists of hydrocortisone cream and an antihistamine to help with the itchiness."
"Unfortunately," he pointed out, "unless you know it's bedbugs that are causing the problem, the problem has a way of persisting." If there's a possibility that's what's afflicting you, don't be shy! Let your healthcare provider know you might be the victim of a bed bug encounter.
As for what happened to the French family? "Before he left the emergency department, the father said they were going to get another hotel room. To prevent the pests from following them from one hotel to another, he planned to pack their suitcases in dark trash bags and leave them out in the sun for a while," Cobb said.
"Even in spring, Arizona can be hot. That should have baked their problems away."