Feel like snuggling up to a bedbug or two? Sightings are on the rise nationwide at homes, schools, and—holiday travelers take note—hotels and motels. Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Chicago are among the worst-hit cities, according to Terminix, the pest-control company. And entomologists say the number of bedbugs continues to increase each year worldwide, likely because of the longtime ban on DDT in many countries, resistance to current pesticides, and growth of international travel.
But are the tiny bloodsuckers as big a threat as media coverage suggests? The answer seems to be yes—and no. Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an entomologist with the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program at Cornell University, has yet to spot a bedbug in a hotel room, but on two occasions entomologists she was traveling with encountered infestations. The risk "is very real," she says. "Everyone who travels needs to be aware and vigilant, because self-protection is important."
Early this month a Michigan woman sued the swanky Waldorf-Astoria in New York for financial and emotional distress, claiming a bedbug attack during a May visit. According to her attorney, she suffered more than 100 bites and the bugs followed her to her Midwest home; the family had to move out for six weeks and paid $4,500 in extermination bills and thousands more for other cleaning costs. In a press statement, the hotel asserted that her room had been checked and pronounced bedbug-free.
The uncertainty concerning the scope of the problem, however, is due to the absence of a central agency that tracks and verifies hotel bedbug reports. The story is told largely through anecdotes. But in a July survey of nearly 1,000 pest-management services, 70 percent said they had identified and exterminated bedbugs in a hotel during the previous year. The bedbug-hotel issue has even caught the attention of lawmakers. Last week, Reps. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina and Don Young of Alaska hosted a forum in Washington, D.C. to tout a bill they've dubbed the "Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite Act," which would provide government funding for hotel inspections and contribute to research toward prevention and control. When the bill was introduced to Congress in 2009, members were told that in a study of 200 hotel rooms between 2002 and 2006, 25 percent were infested with the pests.
The "gross factor" is high, and travelers are clearly uneasy. Twenty percent of 3,000 travelers surveyed by the website TripAdvisor ranked bedbugs as their top traveling concern. The site, which permits travelers to post reviews, also reported an 11 percent jump in comments referencing bedbugs between January and August of 2009, compared to that same period in 2010. A just-launched iPhone application called Bed Bug Alert ($1.99) allows folks to track bedbug reports within a one-block radius of any U.S. location. And the Bedbug Registry, launched in 2006 as a free public database for disgruntled travelers to anonymously grumble or investigate the vermin at prospective hotels, has seen a rise in bedbug reports. At the beginning of the year, the site saw 3,000 visitors and 20 new reports of bedbug sightings a day; that's since spiked to 40,000 visitors and 100 new reports daily.
Such anonymous posts can have considerable impact, despite being unverified and possibly false, says Daniel Mount, a professor with Pennsylvania State University's School of Hospitality Management. He recalls one hotel that lost out on a 200-room group reservation, canceled because a patron was suspicious of an online review citing bedbugs. "This kind of posting can be tremendously expensive," Mount says.
Perhaps contrary to intuition, luxury hotels aren't exempt from the bedbug threat. Reports of sightings spring forth at four-star hotels just as they do at budget motels. "These are socially transmitted pests" whose presence is unrelated to poor hygiene, Gangloff-Kaufmann says. "People are bringing in a bedbug here and there every day. Hotels are particularly vulnerable because there's so much turnover, and there's no way to screen people or prevent the bugs from coming in."
Bedbugs, rust-colored insects the size of an apple seed, are themselves travelers, hitching rides on clothing, backpacks, and luggage. They hide in cracks, crevices, seams, and folds of material, and emerge at night to feast on human blood. They don't spread disease and their bites are painless, says Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association; their saliva contains an anesthetic, which numbs the skin. But red, itchy welts typically appear within 24 to 48 hours of being bitten. Bedbugs can survive a year without feeding, and each female produces about 350 eggs during her lifespan.
While there's no reason to panic or cancel vacation plans, travelers can take steps to protect themselves, starting with a thorough once-over of the hotel room. Flood the room with light and strip the sheets from the bed, and then scan the mattress, box spring, and bed frame for bedbug droppings—dark stains that are actually drips of digested blood. A travel-size flashlight is helpful for peering into crevices. Some travelers even remove wall-mounted headboards, Gangloff-Kaufmann says. While she doesn't take her own inspection to such an extent, she recalls several friends who have indeed spotted bedbugs hiding behind headboards. And consider bringing along drawer liner encasements, similar to large Ziploc bags, or hanging clothing in the closet rather than using hotel furniture. As a precaution, keep luggage in a plastic trash bag, but don't set it on the floor. The top of the dresser is a smarter choice, as is the bathroom floor, since bedbugs dislike linoleum and tile.
If a bedbug is spotted, report it to the front desk immediately A room change should be automatic—but not to a room above, below, or adjacent to the one that is suspect, since the pests tend to spread to the closest areas. And don't try to resolve the problem alone."This isn't a do-it-yourself pest," Henriksen says. "You can certainly squash one with your finger—and that will kill one bedbug, but it won't eliminate the problem."
And remain cautious when returning home. Even if you dodged hotel bedbugs, the pests can also fester in taxi cab trunks and airplane cargo holds, crawling among luggage. Wash and dry all clothing in hot water, and vacuum suitcases to kill any "unwanted souvenirs," Henriksen says. "Everyone has equal opportunity to have these bugs come into their lives," she says. "They're impossible to totally prevent—the problem is real, it's pervasive, and it's growing. But there's no reason to be paranoid. Be vigilant, but enjoy your travels."