Anyone who travels much and has watched the news for the past several years might find themselves taking seriously that old adage, “Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite.” Since the late 1990s, those little reddish-brown creatures have infested hotels, schools, military bases and other public places, as well as private homes, prompting pest control experts to convene a conference in Washington D.C. in 2009 called the National Bed Bug Summit.

The proliferation of the pests is in part a result of the nationwide ban on the use of the pesticide DDT in the 1970s, according to a 2010 article in the New York Times. While experts have yet to figure out how to eradicate them entirely, there are ways to avoid the small parasites when traveling to New York for Westminster this year…or for that matter, to any town in America.

bed bug size

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bed bugs can be found anywhere in the world and in any environment, from the most exclusive five-star hotel to a homeless shelter, and the cleanliness of the environment in no way determines the likelihood of finding them. They are small, flat insects that range from 1 mm – or .04 inches – in size at the egg stage to a quarter of an inch long as adults. At any stage they can be seen by the naked eye, although in the earlier stages of development finding them would require quite a thorough search. The fact that they’re nocturnal and don’t like light can make it a challenge to detect them.

The somewhat-good news for folks traveling to New York this week is that in January ABC News reported that the city is 10th on the list of the top 50 U.S. cities that had the highest number of bed bug treatments from January to December 2012, down one spot from its number nine ranking in 2011.

The problem with bed bugs, and the reason they’re presence has been called an epidemic, is that the pests can be present any place there are people, and can be transported from place to place in the folds of clothing, suitcases or bags. Although typically found where people sleep, they’ve occasionally been detected on trains and buses, as well as in libraries, theaters, coatrooms and a plethora of other public locations, where they undoubtedly hitched rides on humans to other locales where those people slept.

If you don’t see the bed bugs themselves, small black specs on a mattress, which are blood spots left by the parasites, are a telltale sign of infestation

If you don’t see the bed bugs themselves, small black specs on a mattress, which are blood spots left by the parasites, are a telltale sign of infestation

According to the CDC, bed bugs are “not considered to be dangerous,” and they do not spread disease. They are primarily considered an “annoyance,” but their bites can be painful, and some people might develop a serious allergic reaction. And you certainly don’t want to take them home with you. How can you be sure the area where you’ll be sleeping isn’t infested with the parasites? By conducting a good, thorough search before you place your luggage, yourself and your other belongings on certain surfaces in a hotel room. Note that the bugs can live in upholstery, wallpaper or furniture in addition to mattresses, bedding and on other fabrics.

Tim Drake of the Department of Pesticide Regulation at Clemson University offered the following suggestions for searching for bed bugs when you arrive at your hotel, and what to do if you fear your luggage may have been infested when you leave a hotel.

If you suspect a room may have bed bugs:

  • Place your luggage in the bathtub or shower upon entering the room. Do not initially place it on the luggage rack, bed, chair, or table in the room until the room has been inspected.
  • It is a good practice not to place clothing in drawers provided if an infestation is suspected.
  • Do not lay purses, coats, laptop computers, backpacks or any item on the bed or on the floor near the bed.
  • Perform a thorough inspection of the mattress and box springs by pulling up the sheets on the corners and examining for any fecal spotting, which appears as small comma-shaped black specks on the fabric.
  • Look carefully behind headboards and night stands/bedside tables for any fecal spotting on the wall or any live bed bugs which tend to cluster together in cracks or tight spaces. A small flashlight is useful for performing this inspection.
  • If any signs of fecal spotting or live bed bugs are observed, notify the hotel management immediately and request a different room.

If you suspect your luggage may have been infested:

    • Quarantine all luggage, purses, etc., once you arrive home. Do not take them into your house.
    • Remove all clothing from luggage, place it in a dryer, and run it through two hot cycles BEFORE washing.
    • Contact a reputable pest management professional for recommendations regarding the treatment of infested luggage and laptop computers. Appropriate treatment will depend upon the size, construction, and materials (leather, cloth, plastic, etc.) of the luggage or other article to be treated.
    • The key is to keep bed bugs out of your home if you have been exposed.

    Bed Bug Life Cycle

    The presence of bed bugs in one room of a hotel doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in all the rooms. In spite of what you may have read or heard, experts say that there are no sprays or other applications that you can use in a hotel room to eradicate or prevent the parasites during your stay. If you find evidence of bed bugs in a hotel room, you simply need to ask that management move you to a different room. Suzanne Forsyth, a longtime Saluki breeder and exhibitor and the Pesticide Regulatory Education Program (PREP) Manager at the University of California at Davis, recommends, however, that “The new room should not be immediately next to the infested one, as the pest can easily move between wall spaces.” Many experts suggest placing your suitcases on a luggage rack as a precaution, and not unpacking clothing into drawers, whether or not you find evidence of bed bugs.

    Although not entirely reliable, the Bed Bug Registry, established in 2006, is a public database where people can report bed bug sightings in the U.S. and Canada. Suzanne regularly checks this website when traveling. “It is not endorsed by any regulatory or academic institution and there’s a possibility for consumer retaliation and false posts which often go largely un-rebutted, so users should use caution as using it for a reliable source,” she says. “But it’s one I often refer to when I travel.” The New York City Department of Health also offers tips for avoiding bed bugs when traveling.

    “I hope by the time folks are done reading your article that they will carry a flashlight in their luggage and inspect their hotel rooms regularly,” Suzanne says. “Inspection is key to prevention! Fellow dog show enthusiasts often giggle when they learn that I travel with an inspection flashlight and pull all the bed covers back on the bed for a quick check before my luggage ever enters the room.” But a careful examination of your hotel room on arrival will assure an enjoyable stay in New York during Westminster, so you can sleep tight and not let the bed bugs bite!

    My thanks to Suzanne Forsyth for her assistance with this article.