Halloween might be over but I have to tell you about a real life scary story that happened to me in Thailand – and that is all too common when you travel. Bedbugs in hostels aren’t rare and not necessarily signs of a lack of hygiene. You can get bed bugs in hotels with 5 stars even! So here is my bed bug story with lots of tips on how to spot them and how to cope after an unwanted bed bug encounter.
header photo credit: CDC/ Harvard University, Piotr Naskrecki, CC0
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Table of Contents
How to Spot the Bed Bug Signs
There it was, the dried blood and droppings I had been looking for. Little black smudges, tiny specks along the edges of the mattress. Taking a deep breath and pushing down my germaphobia as best I could (thanks to my depression I am a master at repression), I pulled out the protruding seam with a pen.
Behind it, the scenario looked even bleaker. Tiny white eggs, see-through shells/casings of now grown bedbugs and even more droppings. (Bed bugs shed their exoskeleton so they can grow.) It was undeniable. This was a bedbug infestation. And one that was already well underway.
What Do Bedbugs Look Like?
Earlier that day (at 2am to be exact), I had a mild moment of panic as a bedbug shaped crawler beelined towards me on my white bed sheets. In my sleep deprived brain I jumped to the worst conclusion: it was a bedbug.
I immediately took a photo before I apologetically smashed the little beast. Anyone that messenger said was online received my snap along with my urgent plea to please help me identify it. A little witch hunt ensued with most people trying to (futilely) convince me of it not being a bed bug. It was way too big.
Usually bed bugs grow up to 0.18 inches (4.5mm). Eggs are around 0.09 inches (2.5mm). Nymphs or juvenile bed bugs are in the middle of those sizes. (If you don’t have a ruler and your panic makes you unable to see straight and estimate size, here’s an online ruler.) As a pointer, it’s often said to imagine an apple seed. A ladybug is already too big.
Of course, there might be tons of other insects lurking about that aren’t parasites to humans. To make sure you are looking at a bedbug, know that they are oval, flat and don’t have wings. They can crawl quite fast and have small eyes and antennae.
The more blood they drink, the longer their body stretches and the darker it gets. They kinda look like a dark brown larvae at that point. Young bedbugs are more transparent in colour and their legs and antennae can seem longer relative to their body.
What To Do After Finding Bedbugs?
First and foremost: Try to not freak out. Take all your belongings off the bed and put them away in a plastic bag. Zip tight all your bags and luggage. As a rule of thumb, try to keep your luggage closed and away from beds and cushioned seats, etc when checking into your room. Tiled floors are the best. Even the bathroom is a good place. (I know it seems a little over the top, but still.)
Bed bugs do crawl into bags. They particularly love used clothes as they hate body heat but want to stay as close as possible to their potential new host. Mostly, however, they hide within the mattress, along the walls, especially wood.
What they cannot master is crawling over smooth surfaces like glass or plastic. So putting you stuff in tight plastic bags certainly helps. And you will need those after discovering bedbugs. The longer you wait, the higher the chance of them hiding in your stuff.
But even one bedbug or egg can cause later damage even if you have checked everything right away. They are tiny parasites that can also hide in laptop sleeves, electronic gadget openings and such. To definitely get rid of bedbugs, you need to take certain steps or else the problem won’t go away.
How to Get Rid of Bedbugs
Bedbugs cannot last more than 90 minutes in 45°C (113°F). However, even if you can’t get it that high, lethal temperatures over a few hours range between 47-50°C (117-122°F). Unless you are travelling in super hot climate, this is hard to achieve so there are the following options.
vPack up your entire wardrobe into black rubbish bags. This way the bugs can’t escape and heat gets trapped. Put it out in the open sunlight during peak hours on a hot day. If you have, check with a thermometer because on mildly warm or even cool days, this will definitely not work.
Wash your entire wardrobe on hot at the local launderette. I’d say, do it yourself so you have control over the settings and your laundry bags won’t stand around too long – potentially opened so bedbugs could spread. Additionally or alternatively, dry your clothes on hot for 20 minutes.
I realise these last two options are quite horrible if you have delicate clothes or items that would shrink or lose colours. This was exactly my problem in Thailand. Not only did my hostel’s laundry machines wash cool (and they didn’t have a dryer).
Read this too: More Hostel Horror Stories
But washing hot is entirely uncommon in Phuket from what I’ve been told. I asked a few laundry places and got incredulous stares in return. Clothes are hung out in the hot sun, why would they need hot water or a dryer? Sigh. Same thing back in Bali. Therefore, always check whether there is a local laundry that washes hot and/or has a dryer. They exist! Somewhere.
When you have a bed bug infestation at home, you need to spray every surface, crack and nook to make sure the bedbugs aren’t hiding. (There are specialists to help you deal with pests.) Note that it might accidentally bleach colours. (It made one of my favourite shirts spotty.)
Mattresses, pillows, cushions, etc need to be cleaned too. Covering them with black plastic and putting them out into the sun during extreme heat might not even be enough to fully penetrate the entire thing.
What to Do When Your Hostel Has Bedbugs?
If you aren’t at home and basically have not much control over how bedbugs are dealt with, you have two choices. A) Make them put you in a different room and check that on thoroughly. I did that and was shown to the room that was even more infested with bedbugs.
Then I was transferred to a new building that wasn’t opened yet. As a result, showers didn’t have curtains and the washing basin leaked out onto the floor. Nothing was ready. But at least there were no bedbugs. Still, knowing that the bed sheets are washed together with sheets of potentially infested beets and hung out to dry together, wasn’t good at all.
Option B) is to get your money back and move. Since I found out about the bedbugs at 2AM and engaged in a panic and bedbug witch hunt until 4am, I couldn’t ask the reception for help. It was closed. I couldn’t justify sleeping in an infested bed nor on the couch right outside.
So I did a quick google search and a few minutes later found myself marching through the pouring rain to a hostel that was still open. I paid for one night and thanked the heavens for sleeping on a mattress that happened to be covered in plastic.
Read this too: Forget Jetlag, This Is Why You Can’t Sleep when Travelling
How to Treat Bedbug Bites
Luckily I was never bitten during my bedbug episode. And everyone reacts differently to bedbug bites. Generally bites appear as a straight or zigzag trail on your body. They aren’t localised and spread out like with mosquitoes. Bedbugs wander along your body together and try out different spots for maximum blood intake.
The swelling also differs from mosquitoes as these are actual bites. They can swell up right away up until two weeks later. So really check your body thoroughly. Typically, bites will appear on exposed areas, including facem neck, hands, arms or your back.
Bed bug bites come up red and swollen with a dark red or clear centre. In case you are allergic, you might even see blisters and hives at the site of the bite. Take antihistamines for that and consult your doctor if the swelling gets worse. You can get a rash as well. Never open the blisters!
Read this too: How to not Fall Sick While Travelling
Should You Be Afraid Bedbug Bites?
Fear isn’t a solution nor a preventive method. Being aware of the problem of bedbugs is a good start because they can be anywhere in the world. Usually travellers spread them, taking them in their luggage unknowingly and thus infesting their next bed.
Even the cleanest of places can see bedbugs happen, it’s not just about scanning reviews for hygiene remarks. However, reading hotel ratings certainly is key because more often than not you will find comments on bedbugs and whether the hotel owners are taking the issue seriously.
In short, never let the fear of bedbugs prevent you from travelling. Keep your suitcase closed and away from the bed, do quick mattress checks whenever you check in and take adequate measurements whenever you encounter them. They are a solvable problem. And in my four years of travel, I’ve only ever encountered bedbug situations twice and managed to leave unscathed. That’s pretty good!
Tell me: Have you ever had encounters with bedbugs in hotels or hostels?
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