By Marcia Anderson
Last week, I received several emails from Marion, a traveler in panic over the possibility that she was in contact with bed bugs. She went so far as to send me photographs of her legs covered in bug bites.
First, no one can diagnose the presence of bed bugs from bites alone. Second, everyone reacts differently to their bites – from no reaction to huge welts. The only way to identify bed bugs is by physical evidence – actual bugs, shed skins, blood spots, and droppings.
I asked if she had actually seen any bed bugs. She answered no. There was, however, no assuring her that she probably was not attacked by a multitude of bed bugs without having seen even one or their tell-tale signs. I happened to know the hotel she stayed at and let her know that it had a rigorous cleaning protocol. So, an infestation of bed bugs necessary to create the number of bites she had was unlikely. Not impossible for a few to escape detection, but such a large an infestation would surely not go unnoticed by hotel cleaning staff.
She went on to ask me how to remove bed bugs and their eggs off hard-to-clean, expensive items like her suitcase, leather purse, leather shoes, running shoes, and, worst of all, smartphone. “I hope there is a solution other than throwing all these items away and being forced to buy brand new,” she said. She said she was asking about the smartphone because she read that bed bugs get into openings in electronic devices such as the small portholes for earplug insertion, AC connector, etc.
If indeed they were bed bugs, I recommend heat or steam treatment of the items that can tolerate it. Get a magnifying glass at the local drug store and look carefully. You can also use an alcohol-based cleaning wipe all around the outside and edges of the other items and electronics. Then, with a cotton swab and alcohol solution, go into hard to reach places. Do not immerse! Be sure to reach any inner holes/crevices. It is very unlikely that you would have an infestation in your electronics, especially after a one-night stay and cleaning and looking into the ports.
When traveling, pack all of your items in tightly sealed, clear plastic bags.
Large zip-top bags are fine – just make sure they are sealed. If you are worried about bed bugs in your books, put them in zip-top plastic bags and freeze them for at least 4 days after you return.
There are very few things that need to be discarded even if they carry bed bugs. When you get home, isolate your suitcase in a garage or bathtub and place it in a large plastic bag. Tape tightly shut. Then clean or heat treat it when you have a chance. The longer you keep the case in plastic, the fewer young bed bugs will survive. Even if eggs hatch, the young must feed within a few weeks or they will die.
I can understand your fear. Every time I travel, I check my room carefully, worry and check a second time. A lot of the fear of bed bugs has been accentuated by media and industry hype. Here are some informational fliers. One from the University of Minnesota describes how to inspect your hotel room for bed bugs. A second from EPA tells you how to prevent, detect, and control bed bugs.
Many people have a fear of bringing bed bugs home because of the social stigma. Yes, bed bugs, once established, are very difficult to eliminate. One reason is that they have developed resistance to many common pesticides. Therefore, a multifaceted integrated approach, called Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, is the most effective way to control these pests. The focus of IPM is to find the best strategy for a pest problem and not necessarily the simplest. IPM is not a one-size-fits-all method, but rather a combination of biological, cultural, physical and chemical tools that minimize health and environmental risks.
Be assured that bed bugs have been extensively studied do not cause or spread disease. Getting a mosquito bite is epidemiologically far more dangerous than a bed bug bite.
They have been around for thousands of years and were even been laid to rest with their Egyptian hosts, over 4 millennia ago.
EPA offers bed bug awareness cards for travelers. Print a few to keep and to share with friends before they travel.
About the Author: Marcia is with EPA’s Center of Expertise for School IPM in Dallas, Texas. She holds a PhD in Environmental Management from Montclair State University along with degrees in Biology, Environmental Design, Landscape Architecture, and Instruction and Curriculum. Marcia was formerly with the EPA Region 2 Pesticides Program and has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology, and Oceanography at several universities.