Travelers who aren’t mindful while visiting family and friends this holiday season may find themselves receiving an unwanted, uninvited, and expensive present: bedbugs.
There’s “definitely a trend” of bedbug infestations on the rise locally, said Jeff Davis, owner of Enfield-based extermination company Nukingstreet Pest & Wildlife Control. Davis said his company performs between five and 20 exterminations weekly, with that number “consistently growing.”
That coincides with national rates, he said. Nukingstreet is part of the bedbug information resource which regularly surveys businesses around the country.
“Bedbugs can be quite damaging,” said University of Connecticut assistant entomology professor Ana Legrand.
“They are tough to spot because they are so small,” Legrand said. “They hide as close as possible to where people are sleeping” and “only grow to a quarter of an inch — it’s challenging to find them.”
At the same time, bedbugs are fragile and easy to kill, said Gale Ridge of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, an entomologist who studies bedbugs. They huddle in groups and rely on cracks and crevices for survival.
They aren’t innately harmful, Ridge said, as they don’t carry disease. Some people won’t react at all to bedbug bites, while others suffer allergic reactions.
In some cases the anxiety and worry can be more harmful than the presence of the bugs themselves, Ridge said.
“Insects are little animals,” she said. “If you see them that way, it takes the edge off.”
With that in mind, bedbugs are still a pervasive pest, and they’re difficult to treat for. Extermination requires extensive heat treatments or several weeks’ worth of pesticide spraying, and leaving only a few bugs alive can restart an infestation.
And there are a lot of ways to get them, Davis said.
According to AAA, there were record numbers of travelers on the roads and in airports over the Thanksgiving holiday, and similar numbers are expected over Christmas. As a result, drivers and fliers could be exposed in a number of ways.
Davis said the most common way bedbugs spread is from infested furniture and public transportation.
Crowded luggage storage areas can be an unexpected vehicle, said Davis, who claims to have seen bedbugs sitting on bags waiting on the carousel at Bradley International Airport.
Ridge said those incidents are rare, and travelers should simply know what to look for. They shouldn’t change their plans based solely on rumors and hearsay.
However, it still makes sense to be on guard, Davis said. “If you’re in a hotel, you can get bedbugs” easily, he said.
And when you get to Grandma’s house, ask her if she’s seen anything, Davis cautioned.
“If a family member has bedbugs, you can bring them home with you,” he said.
If you stay mindful of protecting yourself as you travel this holiday season, your odds of staying safe will increase, Davis said.
Legrand recommended researching hotels online, though Ridge warned that some websites aren’t always reliable. Fired employees and disgruntled guests can make anonymous posts that may not be truthful, and some reports may be several years outdated.
“It’s not good for business” for a hotel to not take care of an infestation, Ridge said.
Upon entering a room, Legrand warned against putting luggage on a hotel bed, as bed bugs can easily find their way from the box spring to the suitcase if that hotel room is infested.
“In hotels, they often have luggage racks,” Davis said. By using those and keeping them away from walls, luggage will be safer, as bugs will struggle to climb up the racks’ hard, smooth surfaces.
Some travelers even keep their bags in the bathtub, he said, as bugs similarly struggle to climb up porcelain.
That doesn’t mean you can leave your luggage on a rack and immediately collapse into bed, Davis warned.
“Inspect before accepting your room,” he said. Check for bugs on the base of the bed’s headboard, under the box spring, and in the seams of the mattress. Bedbugs are small, with grown adults the size of an apple seed, so it’s important to take a few minutes to search.
If a room is infested, you’ll see bugs, bug exoskeletons, or fecal matter, Davis said. Fecal matter will appear as small black dots that the bugs usually leave piled up where they gather, he said. Ridge described it as black clustered specs found around a nightstand, mattress or headboard.
Legrand recommended researching what bedbugs look like for better awareness. She added that finding bedbugs doesn’t necessarily mean a hotel is dirty, as the insects probably came from a previous occupant. The same goes for homes: A clean home can become infested just the same as a dirty one.
Safe at home
If someone is exposed to bedbugs while traveling and fears they’ve brought stragglers home, there are several steps they can take to protect themselves, Davis added. Among them are mattress encasements, which prevent bugs from getting into furniture, as well as traps and devices that prevent them from climbing.
Some traps have steep surfaces bedbugs can’t climb, keeping them contained, he said. People who are unsure can check them every few days or weeks to see if anything has crawled inside.
They can also hire an exterminator to inspect, though that might not be a great idea if an infestation is small — the inspector may not find anything, he said.
Legrand added that if clothing has been exposed to bedbugs, it should be washed in a cycle of hot water and dried on high heat in a dryer. Clean items can simply be dried on high heat for at least 30 minutes. Exposure to heat for that long kills the insects.
She added that travelers should inspect their bags as well.
Davis warned not to overreact or stress, saying that people who do so can do things that harm them or worsen their infestation. Bug spray foggers, for instance, can lead bugs to spread through a location or even become immune to chemicals if exposed to non-fatal doses.
“As long as folks don’t overreact, it’s probably better to call a professional who can treat quickly and safely,” Davis said.
Ridge added education and pragmatism are the two best tools against a bedbug infestation.
“We’re in charge, not the insect,” she said.