Bedbugs: What travelers need to know this summer

Jul 7, 2023, 5:00 AM

No wonder bedbugs are hard to spot -- this one is dwarfed by this US dime. Photo credit:  Jeff Marc...

No wonder bedbugs are hard to spot -- this one is dwarfed by this US dime. Photo credit: Jeff March/Alamy Stock Photo

(CNN) — Something wasn’t right with Michelle Quinn.

In mid-February of this year, she started noticing spots on the left side of her lower back. The 53-year-old resident of northwest Indiana thought maybe she was allergic to her detergent.

Then the itchy places started spreading to other areas of her body — still all on her left side. That heightened the anxiety and the mystery. “It was itchy, but never in my life thought it was bedbugs.”

Then one night after work – about two weeks later – the thought of bedbugs did enter her mind. She was looking up pictures of them on Google when she noticed “a little tiny reddish bug” crawling across a piece of paper on her couch. She looked at the bug. Then the screen. Then the bug again.

“I was like ‘Nah, that can’t be.’ And so I kind of flicked it off and didn’t think anything of it until the next morning – when I wake up and I see one on my arm. And so I grabbed my phone and put it in camera and enlarged it and sure enough, that’s exactly what it was. And that of course is when the freaking out commenced.”

Are we in for a summer of bad bedbug news?

What Quinn started grappling with this past winter might portend problems during this summer of rip-roarin’ travel.

“It’s hard to predict this sort of thing, but the scenario of record increases in travel and staff shortages in the hospitality industry is concerning in respect to bedbugs,” said Michael F. Potter,  professor emeritus in the Department of Entomology at the University of Kentucky.

While bedbug infestations can happen in all types of places, hotels and other lodging are a major spreading spot, Potter said.

“The staff shortage issue is concerning because the best way for hotels to prevent infestations from escalating within their hotels is staying vigilant. And the biggest way they can do that is by performing regular inspections of their rooms … by the housekeepers who need to be trained and educated to spot infestations at their initial stages.”

The worse the staffing shortage, the harder it becomes to stay on top of the situation, Potter said.

Does it help if you flat-out ask about the bedbug situation at an establishment when you check in or make reservations?

“I think the reality is the person at the front desk is not going to be equipped to answer that question,” said Potter. “If I were in the hospitality industry, I’d be really schooling my people to respond to that question. But in terms of whether the guest is going to be able to get anything of any substance when they ask that question, I would say it’s exceedingly unlikely.”

Hotel room prevention tips

First thing to ask yourself: How much time and energy do you want to devote to bedbug prevention?

“Every traveler has to decide how vigilant they want to be in respect to bedbugs. Travel is stressful enough – or can be – and you’re trying to get away from all the things life throws at you,” said Potter. “So the last thing you want to be doing is … living out of your suitcase, living out of Ziploc bags, keeping your suitcase in the bathtub, which some people recommend but which I think is stupid.”

There are less drastic measures you can take.

Potter suggests that before you even unpack, at least do a cursory bed check. Pull back the sheets and blankets from the mattress and look around the seams of the mattress, particularly at the head area, for bedbugs themselves or signs of them (more on that below).

Check the seams of the mattress, too. This cursory check won’t reveal every place a bedbug could hide, Potter said, but it gives you the best shot of spotting an issue for the least effort.

A big thing to avoid: Don’t place your suitcase on the floor in the corner. That’s the best chance of bringing bedbugs home, Potter said. Put it instead on an elevated surface such as the top of a dresser or a luggage rack. If there are two beds in a room, Potter does not put his suitcase on the other bed.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association offers some additional tips:

• Check behind the headboard as best you can (that’s a tough one to check easily) and in sofas and chairs.
• If you see any signs of bedbugs, tell management right away. Ask for another room – ideally one not next to the problem room. If you aren’t satisfied, go to another place entirely if possible.
• If you have spotted bedbugs, consider putting a plastic trash bag or protective cover around your suitcase.

These are the signs of bedbug infestations

The US Environmental Protection Agency notes that other insects, such as carpet beetles, can be easily mistaken for bedbugs. So it’s good to educate yourself before your inspection. And that probably includes looking at gross, close-up pictures.

Usually, adult bed bugs are about the size of an apple seed (5 to 7 millimeters or 3/16 to 1/4 inch long). They’re long and brown, with a flat, oval-shaped body if they haven’t fed recently. They are balloon-like, reddish-brown and more elongated if they’ve fed.

Young bed bugs are usually smaller and are either translucent or whitish-yellow. If they haven’t recently fed, the nymphs can be nearly invisible to the naked eye. Bed bug eggs are the size of a pinhead and pearl-white.

You might not see the bugs themselves but rather their telltale signs, which might include:

• Rusty or reddish stains on sheets or mattresses (caused when they are crushed).
• Dark spots about the size of the bullet points in this list. Those spots are bedbug excrement after they’ve feasted on blood.
• Eggs and eggshells, which are quite tiny.
• The exoskeletons of the bugs, which they shed when they molt.
• A sweet, musty odor if the infestation is heavy.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

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Bedbugs: What travelers need to know this summer