You thought they were just mosquito bites. They were mostly on your legs and ankles and you have been wearing shorts... but this morning you woke up with little red blotches all over your shoulders and back. The red spots are clustered in little lines and they are starting to itch. And now that you mention it, those rusty colored spots on the sheets do look kind of like dried blood.
Congratulations! You have bed bugs! (Or at least where you are staying does.)
How do you deal with bed bugs when you are on the road?
Believe it or not, travelling is perhaps the easiest circumstances in which to encounter and eliminate bed bugs. You have a few advantages:
You have a limited amount of stuff.
You have time to heal up.
You can rapidly and easily change where you are living.
Having realized there are tiny things sucking your blood in the night, you probably want to get out of wherever you are ASAP. However, to avoid repeating this experience at your next accommodation (or in your home) take a little time to properly deal with your belongings and the damage to your body.
What do bites look like?
People vary in their reactions to bed bug bites. If you have sensitive skin or allergies you may have larger, redder, itchier bites than others. For those who are less reactive, the bites can look just like mosquito bites.
The best way to tell if the bites you have are bed bug bites is to look at their layout. Bed bugs typically travel in straight (or semi-straight) lines, literally just grazing their way across your skin.
If you have red bites that appear in a line, you probably have bed bug bites.
You can also verify that they are bed bug bites by seeing if the bite locations match the surfaces you sleep on. For example, if you are a side sleeper you will have them across your side, shoulders and arm.
When do bites appear?
Again this varies depending on your personal level of reaction. Some travellers may spend a week or more sleeping with bed bugs before seeing any bites. If you are taking allergy medication or any kind of steroid this may lengthen the delay before bites appear.
Changes in environment may trigger the appearance of bites such as exposure to salt water or changes in temperature or humidity. It is possible for bites to fail to appear until after you have left the place where you are being bitten.
What do bites feel like?
Bites will be itchy and swollen. They can be as small as an ⅛ of an inch (1/3 centimeter) to as big as a ½ inch (1.25 centimeters) across. Multiple bites in a single area can merge together to appear to be a single large blotchy section of skin.
If you suspect that you have bed bugs but have no bites, you can also visually inspect the bed and furniture.
Where to check and what to look for?
Bed bugs can live for more than a year without feeding. They can survive temperatures below freezing all the way up to over 100’ F (38’C). They can move surprisingly large distances in the night; typically 10 feet or less but up to 20 feet in extreme cases. They can live in mattresses, carpets, picture frames, pillows, curtains, door frames- really anywhere dark that offers ready access to its food: you.
Full size adults can be up to ¼ inch (.5 centimeter) across or as small as 1/16 of an inch (.15 centimeter). Generally, evidence of the bug’s existence (if not the bugs themselves) is visible to the naked eye.
The quickest and easiest way to check for bed bugs is to pull back the the covers and sheets. Look for black gooey substances near the bed frame or in wall cracks or rust colored stains on the sheets or mattress. If the goo smears or the rust is a brighter red, it’s evidence of recent bed bug activity. A musty, sweet smell (sometimes described as overripe berries) also frequently accompanies an infestation.
Of course, you may be lucky enough (really more like unlucky enough) to simply spot the infestation visually.
So you definitely have bedbugs...
Alright! You’ve got bites in straight lines, a musty room with rust colored stains on the sheets and a massive crawling and disgusting colony of bugs under the seam of the mattress. First thing to do is get out of there with all your stuff.
BUT, before you move into another room, you need to make sure your belongings aren’t just carrying the infestation with you. (Not least of all because eventually you will carry it home with you.)
How to Avoid carrying Bed Bugs to Your Next Location (or all the way back home)
You will need to wash and dry all your clothes, belongings and your bag as well. Washing (with soap) can help loosen or eliminate eggs that may be hidden in seams or under pockets, but drying at high heat is the only sure fire way to eliminate the bugs and their eggs.
Make sure you wash everything: shoes, wallets, purses, scarves, toiletry kits, towels etc. Use hot water and if you are doing it by hand, don’t be afraid to let it soak for a while before rinsing. For drying, a machine dryer is the best option. Make sure to put it on high heat or at least ½ hour. If a machine dryer is not available, bright sunlight is the next best substitute. Leave for at least 2 hours in bright sunlight. If it was a particularly bad infestation, washing and drying twice won’t hurt.
If (like me) you can’t exactly fit your backpack into a washing machine or dryer then you are going to want to carefully turn everything inside out and visually inspect all the seams and interiors. You can also wipe them down with bleach wipes. If you dry it in the sun, make sure to do two hours inside out and two hours not.
Remember that bed bugs can also survive in the spine of books. personal electronics, toiletry kit, etc.
Best case scenario, you want to seal those items in plastic bags until you have the opportunity to open and inspect them carefully.
You’ve taken care of your stuff, now you need to take care of yourself.
How do I manage my bites?
In most cases bed bug bites can be dealt with like any other insect bite. Allergy medication and anti-itch creams can help with itching and swelling. In extreme cases, the use of prescription steroid creams or pills can be helpful. If you are traveling outside the US and Europe, it can be easy to get prednisone or prescription strength cortisone cream at a pharmacy. Oatmeal baths and moisturizer can also help.
(If you’d like to see the progression of my bites from our recent trip to Cartagena, Colombia, there’s photos and videos here.)
As with any bite, be careful of scratching as bites can get infected. Healing time will depend on the strength of your reaction and can take anywhere from a few days to a week or more.
So...your clothes and bag are fresh smelling (and two sizes smaller than normal) your books and your laptop are duct taped in plastic and you’re all lathered up with cortisone. You look ridiculous. But you smell so nice.
Time to find new accommodations. This time, do some homework and investigation to make sure you don’t need to go thru this process a 2nd time.
How to avoid bed bugs in the future
Next, make sure to check reviews by other travelers. It can be easy to discount a lone reviewer who experienced a problem but it’s not worth the risk. If someone mentions bed bugs, just book somewhere else.
If you don’t have access to reviews or are forced to choose without preparation make sure to inspect the room as discussed above, before bringing your bag into the room. If you are forced to bring the bag in, don’t put it on the bed! The safest place is in the bathroom tub or shower while you inspect.
Finally, as a courtesy to future guests make sure to inform the staff/owner where you were bitten of their problem and if possible, leave a review for future guests that informs them of your experience.
(If you’re curious why and how I learned all this, you can check out my post about my own most recent bed bug experience in Cartagena, Colombia)