NEW YORK (MainStreet) — As a child you may have often been put to bed with a “goodnight, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite” from your parents or grandparents, but younger generations growing up in more sanitary times probably know little if anything about the real insects known as bedbugs.
Well, that may have been true until recently. The bedbug, a pest and health hazard that had been as good as wiped out with modern pesticides in the U.S. by the middle of the 20th century, is making a big comeback.
Experts have a number of theories on how that comeback has come about, but some of the most widely accepted theories suggest the problem was never totally taken care of to begin with.
One theory holds that bedbugs built a better immunity than previously thought to the pesticides used to treat them. Another blames the fact that we no longer have the same strong tools to combat bedbugs, as some of the pesticides have been banned for their potential to harm people. A third common theory proposes that because people weren’t looking for them, or didn’t even know they existed during a time in which more people travel the world, bedbugs simply went largely undetected for several years and used that under-the-radar status to spread.
“It has been almost 15 years since bedbugs first made their reappearance in the U.S. For almost 10 years, they were quietly multiplying and spreading and no one was looking for them or able to identify them properly,” said Adam Greenberg, a frequent traveler who also invented a luggage cover to help travelers avoid bringing bedbugs home.
Greenberg said he has found bedbugs while traveling multiple times, including on a cruise ship several years ago and a New York hotel room just a month ago. “Bedbugs are definitely not a media-hyped fear, they are a real risk that every traveler should be aware of,” Greenberg said.
He and other experts weighed in on how to deal with the critters.
Do your homework.
The first step in protecting yourself is to do some basic research before you travel. Know what bedbugs and their telltale signs look like. A good first stop is a website like bedbugger.com, which has photos and great descriptions of what to look for.
If you check these sites and don’t find a report for your destination though, you should by no means assume that you are safe.
“The problem with most media stories about bedbug sightings is that they focus on one specific hotel or location, making it sound like most hotels are bedbug-free while only a few hotels are bedbug-infested,” Greenberg said. “Reports from most exterminators or bedbug canine inspectors are that bedbugs are now found in almost every hotel that is checked by a professional, but in very small numbers.”
Assume the worst.
Richard Stevenson Jr., a member of the National Pest Management Association Blue Ribbon Bed Bug Task Force and co-president of Modern Pest Services in Brunswick, Maine, thinks we are just scratching the surface of the infestation, since the resurgence of the pests is relatively recent.
“How big of a problem it is, I think, is yet to be seen,” Stevenson said. “It's now rare to find pest management professionals who haven't had direct contact with bedbugs – and fairly often at that.”
Use local knowledge.
Stevenson compares the situation in the U.S. to what he saw on a recent family trip to Europe: “Everyone knew the drill,” he says, explaining, “suitcases stay in the hall until the entomologist takes a good look around for bed bugs.”
Choose the right hotel.
Glenn Haussman, editor in chief of Hotel Interactive Network, a trade publication, thinks hotels have gotten a bad rap because of bedbugs, but insists there’s no harm in taking precautions.
"I travel over 100 nights per year and the chances of getting bedbugs is really small,” Haussman said. “Bedbugs are on the uptick, but it isn’t an emergency at this point.”
Still, Haussman recommends concerned travelers call the hotel ahead of time and inquire as to what is being done about the problem and what is done if a report is made. He says all hotels are fundamentally at the same risk of infestation, so what matters is what they do about it.
“It isn’t a cleanliness issue, but a matter of people bringing them in from other places,” he said.
Know the real risks.
Even if your chosen hotel has had an outbreak before doesn’t mean they will necessarily have another. And for those who worry about strong anti-bedbug chemicals creating problems of their own in a hotel that used to have bedbug problems, Stevenson, the bedbug expert, says people shouldn’t be concerned about the toxicity of new pesticides.
“Most of the newer pesticides could be considered much less strong and have much less risk to humans. Newer formulations referred to as ‘narrow spectrum’ are designed to target the individual pest. They tend to have much lower toxicity and break down in much less time,” Stevenson said.
Inspect your hotel room before moving in.
Phil Sylvester, a travel safety expert for WorldNomads.com, outlines what guests should do the first time they arrive at their room.
He says to leave your luggage in the hall while you do an inspection (leave someone guarding the bags against theft), place it in the tub, or put your luggage in a sealed garbage bag before entering the room. The bugs live in a two- to three-meter radius of the bed, but can also be in other room furniture.
If the room is dark, switch on the light and immediately throw back the covers on the bed. You may see one or two bugs, or the telltale brown spots and dark streaks they leave. Strip the bed (you can ask the housekeeping staff to re-make it later), look in the mattress seams and under the label (bugs like it there), or even flip the mattress and look for dark spots (signs of a nest).
Also, check between the mattress and the headboard, and behind the headboard itself. Do the same for room furniture (chairs, sofa).
Most importantly, don’t put luggage or clothes on the bed or furniture. Use the bag rack and even think about keeping the bag inside that garbage bag for the duration of your stay.
So what do you do when you find bedbugs? It's rare to find actual live bedbugs in your hotel room, since they hide in cracks so well, but dead bugs are a different story. And sometimes, you may simply wake up with a suspicious rash you didn’t have when you went to bed.
“I've found dead bed bugs out in the open in rooms that had been sprayed about two weeks prior to my arrival,” Greenberg, the frequent traveler, said. “If you find something, take a photo (use the camera's macro mode to get a clear close-up) of what you found.”
Alert the hotel authorities.
Haussman, who edits the hospitality magazine, recommends going to the front desk immediately to report your findings rather than waiting until you get home to lodge a complaint. The hotel may not be aware of the problem, so the earlier they know, the easier it will be to contain the infestation.
At the very least, he says, the hotel staff should offer to inspect your room immediately and move you to a different room and floor (although not right above or below or next door to the contaminated room, as bedbugs can move too). Haussmann says they should also put your room out of service, as well as the surrounding rooms.
In his experience, Hausmann says, hotel managers who are truly concerned about the problem should offer to take your belongings and have them cleaned at the hotel’s expense. Similarly, they should of course offer you another room for free, and don’t be afraid to ask for an upgrade – the hotel should want to do what it can to make up for its bedbug problem.
If you don’t feel the hotel is responding appropriately to your concerns, Haussman says to ask to speak with higher management and call the hotel’s parent company if you can’t find a happy resolution.
Nobody wants bedbugs – travelers or the hotels that host them – so with a few proper precautions and an understanding of the problem, travelers should have no trouble enjoying their vacations without worrying about the creepy crawlies.
As always when traveling, whether the threat is pickpockets or bedbugs, the golden rule applies: be vigilant.
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