Photo: Akos Nagy (Shutterstock)
Nobody wants bed bugs. You do not want bed bugs. The hotel you’re staying in does not want bed bugs, but it’s entirely possible that it has them. We have tips on how to check your hotel room for bed bugs, but what do you do if you actually find some? You do not want to risk bringing these guys home.
Be wary from the start
When you first enter your hotel room, do not flop your suitcase or yourself down on the bed. The same goes for the couch, or anything else upholstered. Roll your suitcase into the bathroom, and leave it there for now. You can set your purse down on the countertop or even a table, but to be totally honest, the safest place for all your stuff right now is the bathtub.
Bed bugs could be in any type of hotel, so don’t assume that the hotel you’re in is so nice or so clean that you don’t need to check. The details on where to look, and what to look for, are here. In brief: pull up the bedsheets and mattress covers at the corners, and inspect for stains or gritty black or brown stuff.
Bed bugs live in dark crevices, out of sight, but they come out each night for blood meals (aka, you). They can hide in and around beds, so that includes headboards and picture frames; check around the edges of those, too. And despite the name, they can also live in non-bed furnishings, like couches. So check those places.
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What a bed bug looks like
If you find bed bug evidence on the mattress or elsewhere, take a minute to verify your suspicions. There are plenty of websites that will show you all the gory details of what a bed bug infestation looks like, so I’ll spare you the visuals here. This FAQ from Reddit’s bedbug forum provides a good rundown of what you’re looking for, and it also includes information on several lookalike species that are not bed bugs.
Because, honestly: a lot of people don’t know what bed bugs look like. If you see a bug in your hotel room, it’s fair to suspect bed bugs, but make sure to verify your observation in case you’ve just happened upon an ant, a carpet beetle, or a roach. These guys may not be the best roommates, but they are nothing compared to the horror of possibly bringing home a bed bug infestation.
Now, just because you found ants or roaches, that does not mean that you’re in the clear. You could have roaches and bedbugs. Just saying.
What to do first
Alright, so you’ve found what you’re pretty sure is bed bug evidence. The first thing I would do, after (or in the process of) identifying what I’ve found, is to take clear photos, just in case these come in handy when making your complaint or asking corporate headquarters for a refund.
Next, your luggage! Is it in the bathtub? If so, it’s safe for now. If not, put it in the bathtub. It’s possible for bed bugs to crawl into your bags and thereby hitch a ride home. If there’s any chance that they snuck in while you weren’t looking (for example, if you don’t find the bugs until after you’ve spent a few nights in the room), treat your suitcase as potentially contaminated until you can thoroughly clean it and everything in it. But that’s for later.
Now, you have to figure out where you’re spending the night, because ideally it will not be this bed bug-infested hotel room. Contact the front desk and explain the issue. Some states have laws requiring that any room with bed bugs have them exterminated before anybody can use the room again. You can reasonably expect the hotel to try to move you to a different room, or to let you cancel the reservation and go elsewhere.
If they do want to move you to a different room, ask for it to be as far away from the infested room as possible. A room right next door, or directly above or below, may be infested as well. Insist on inspecting the new room before you agree to stay there.
One more thing to do while you’ve got a hotel employee apologizing at you: Ask for garbage bags. If you did get some bed bugs in your suitcase, you don’t want to bring them to your next accommodations. And if you didn’t, you might be, understandably, extra paranoid about the possibility. Wrap your bags in plastic for the rest of your trip.
How bad is it to stay in a bed with possible bed bugs?
What if you have no other option, or you discovered the bugs after already spending a night in the cursed room? How bad is it to wake up with bed bug bites?
The good news is that bed bugs don’t transmit diseases with their bites. They may be able to transmit Chagas disease through their feces, although the normal vector for that disease is bed bugs’ relative the kissing bug. What that means, for you: Don’t scratch your bed bug bites until after you’ve washed the skin around them.
Okay, now time for the bad news. Bed bug bites are no fun. Most commonly, there will be several bites in clusters or in a row. They look a bit like mosquito bites, and they itch. You won’t notice anything while you’re being bitten, but you may find yourself itching the next day, or even a few days later.
If you’ve been bitten by a lot of bed bugs, you may be desensitized to them. Or maybe you’re just lucky—people’s reactions vary, and some people do not react at all.
If you need to stay in a place that may have bed bugs, get some plastic sheeting and place it on top of the bed, and don’t allow it to touch the floor or any surroundings (pull the bed away from the headboard). You can put clean sheets on top of the plastic, but make sure your bedding doesn’t touch the floor. It’s relatively safe to sleep on a plastic-encased bed like this.
How do you keep from bringing bed bugs home?
Alright, let’s talk about that suitcase. Bed bugs may climb in it because they’re looking for a hiding place, but they may also be following the scent of your dirty laundry. If you can’t manage to wrap your whole suitcase in plastic, at the very least bag up your laundry.
While you’re still in the infested area, sort your laundry. Anything labeled “dry clean only” should skip the washer but is usually safe to go in the dryer. Sort the rest of your laundry the usual way, and plan to wash it using the hottest and harshest settings that won’t destroy your clothes. If something can be washed in hot water, by golly, you will wash it in hot water. Seal up the laundry before you take it home or to the laundromat; if there are bugs in the bags, you don’t want them crawling out.
At home, or at the next place you get the opportunity, empty everything out of your suitcase and vacuum the entire suitcase, inside and out, including all the pockets and nooks and crannies. Do this outdoors if you can, and seal up the debris when you take it out of the vacuum.
The University of Minnesota has a guide to laundering clothes to kill bed bugs. Pro tip: 30 minutes in the dryer, on high heat, will kill the bugs. You can use this treatment on clothes that don’t need to be washed or that shouldn’t get wet (like the dry-clean-only stuff).
Be careful about those bags, by the way. The guide has instructions on sealing up the empty, used bag so that any bugs inside won’t be able to escape from the trash. And you’ll want to put your clothes immediately into clean bags (don’t trust the folding table at the laundromat) and keep them sealed up until you’re in a place that you know is bed bug-free.
What about things I can’t launder?
Here’s another small piece of good news: While it may be hard to find bed bugs, it’s pretty easy to kill them. They don’t do well with extremes of temperature, so one way to kill them is to leave your belongings in a hot car or a garbage bag for a few days and let the summer sun bake them to death. (The University of Minnesota says the heat isn’t reliable enough; the Texas A&M extension endorses the technique as long as you can get the contents of the bag up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour. I suspect this approach works better in Texas than in Minnesota.)
Freezing is also an option. To kill bed bugs, they must be below freezing temperatures for four days; consider using a thermometer to monitor the process, especially for large items where the surface might be cold but the inside may not be. The University of Minnesota warns that outdoor temperatures aren’t usually consistent enough to be able to freeze things just by leaving them outside in the winter; an actual freezer will do the job better.
Objects with hard surfaces, like wooden or plastic toys, can be wiped clean. Watch out for cracks and crevices, though; the little buggers like to hide. It’s possible to fumigate small objects with kits you can buy, if you can’t find another way to kill the bugs.