Summer Bed Bug Alert: How to Protect Yourself

Forbes
Thursday, June 30, 2011

If you're worried about encountering bed bugs this summer, or - poor you - you're already coping with them, you're in good company. One in five Americans has had bed bugs or knows someone who has, and 80 percent are afraid of encountering them in hotels, according to a survey by the National Pest Management Association. And for once, a public health panic is reasonably well-founded; bed bugs are indeed turning up in hot spots all over the country, with new infestations in major cities hitting the news with regularity.

I've been reporting on bed bugs for quite awhile. I've covered how to protect yourself from bed bugs when you travel, including a new spray product reputed to fend them off from hitching home in your luggage, and how to get rid of bed bugs if you are unfortunate enough to bring them home with you. I've even offered additional bed bug prevention tips for frequent travelers.  In fact, I've become something of a reluctant expert in the science of bed bugs and bed bug-prevention. So now I'm going to tell you what you really need to know about bed bugs that no one else is telling you.

1. Know Your Danger Spots. If your summer vacation is going to take you touring the National parks of the West or Southwest, you probably don't have to take more than routine precautions against bed bugs. They really haven't made it out to the hinterlands in great numbers yet. But if your summer travel is going to take you to a major cities, particularly one in the midwest or eastern seaboard, watch out. The list of contenders for the "top 10″ danger zones in constantly changing as new pest reports come in, but Cincinnati, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and, perhaps surprisingly, Denver and Los Angeles consistently make the list. Boston and Baltimore made a recent list issued by pest management company Terminix, which also included Dallas and San Franciscofor the first time. Other midwestern cities with major bed bug problems include Dayton, Cleveland, and Columbus, Ohio (in fact the entire state of Ohio is under siege, according to pest management experts), Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Louisville, Kentucky. Another list added Houston and Las Vegas to the list of western cities newly introduced to the bed bug disaster. (Thanks to Terminix, Orkin, and ChemtecPest for these lists.) If you want to know how bad bed bugs are in your summer vacation destination, look it up in the bed bug registry, which keeps up-to-date reports which can even be searched by hotel. Warning: gross-out factor high. Be aware, however, that you may be looking at reports from a year or more ago, in which case the particular hotel may have cleaned up its act.

Bed bug stains on a mattress via Cuttlefish

2. Be an assertive detective. No, it doesn't feel polite to go up to the desk and say you think your room might have bed bugs. But wouldn't you rather do that than get bitten or, worse, bring them home? The bed bug situation, unfortunately, forces us to set squeamishness aside and talk about gross stuff. So, as soon as you get in your room (before opening your suitcase, even to take out your toothbrush!) inspect like crazy. Don't just take the sheets off the bed, strip it down to the mattress. Look for the telltale black spots and darkish stains around the edges of the mattress. You're unlikely to see the bugs themselves, which are a clear color and tiny, the size of sesame seeds. But you can see their "leavings," a disgusting combination of their shells and bits of blood from their human dinner. Check upholstered chairs, too.  If you see anything at all, ask for another room, preferably on another floor. If you see anything suspicious in that room, try a completely different wing or, if possible, another hotel. This is really the primary bed bug prevention strategy available: check, look again, and leave if you see anything.

3. Travel Prepared. The last thing you want to do is arrive and start worrying about bed bugs. Take the worry out of travel by bringing protective supplies, including plastic bags to store your clothes in (those air-lock travel bags do double-duty by making extra room in your suitcase, as well as keeping bugs out.) Don't be tempted to hang your clothes in hotel closets or leave them strewn over chairs, unless you're 100-percent certain the room's bug free; bed bugs are now known to favor upholstered furniture and yes, they can climb walls. Put your suitcase on a luggage rack and pull it out from the wall. If you're going to New York, Ohio, or anywhere else where bed bugs are known to be, well, practically everywhere, you ca also bring a household remedy reputed to keep them at bay. (No guarantees here.) These can include Vaseline, which some say you use to coat the legs and rails of the bed so the bugs can't climb up, and an herbal spray, Rest Easy, that promises to repel bed bugs. I travel with it and spray it around the edges of my suitcase and all over the luggage rack, just in case. Or you can take the extreme measure being recommended by some and bathe the bed rails, headboard, and the edges of the mattresses in a mixture of rubbing alcohol and floor cleaner. (Seriously, people recommend this but it smells so vile you're probably better off staying home.) When I come home from a trip, I wash everything I've brought with me and dry it in a hot dryer and leave my suitcase stored in a plastic garbage bag for two weeks, also with "just in case" in mind.

There's a lot more to say about bed bugs, but I've probably disgusted you enough for one day. More posts to come, including how to get rid of bed bugs once you've got 'em. Still excited about that summer vacation? Just kidding.