bed bugs… a backpackers nightmare

Image courtesy of Bed Bug Foundation

I know.  I’m sorry.  It’s disgusting.  But I feel I have a duty to talk about these tenacious and unrelenting monsters.  I got them.  Not right now, silly!  But I did get attacked by the dreaded bed bug.  Let me set the scene for you, it was a hot sunny day and we had just arrived by local bus to Bandipur, Nepal (which if you have travelled the roads in Nepal, you know it’s never a smooth ride) and after a few disappointing views of our guesthouse options we finally settled on a shitty guesthouse with an ensuite and a hot water shower (read: the selling point).

Despite the stunning view from our rickety balcony, the bed was worse for wear, the toilet ran, and well I think the building was maybe 500 years old and dilapidated to say the least.  Relieved that I would have a hot shower to look forward to in the morning (albeit outside), I was at this point more looking forward to snuggling in to bed to rest from the tiresome travel day.  But little did I know what little critters were waiting for me to jump in to bed.  I was… ATTACKED!

That’s my arm, it looks really weird in the picture, but the point is to show a snapshot of the over 50 bites I woke up to.  Brutal.  What else can I say, it’s the pits!  The bites were all over my arm and my torso, and they were itchy!  We had planned to stay three nights total, but having seen what the other places looked like, we decided to stay put (this I regret), so for the next two nights I slept in socks, long pants, tank top, sweat shirt, sleeping sheet (with the draw string pulled around my neck), and a scarf to cover my head.  Did I mention that it’s pretty darn warm in this part of Nepal in March – yep, I was like a hot tomale roasting at night.

To be honest, I cannot confirm that these were bed bug bites, but the bite pattern exhibits the typical bed bug ritual – in a line and three bites close together  (which they refer to as ‘breakfast, lunch and dinner’ in bed bug talk).  The bigger problem was I continued to find unidentified bites on my body for the following 3 weeks (yes!  Three weeks!), despite washing all of my clothes multiple times, covering myself to near suffocation at night and checking the mattress for any meandering critters every night.  And then I finally I found an adult female bed bug corpse on my bed in Malaysia (proof at last).  The next day I threw ALL of my clothes in the laundry, bought zip lock bags to store all my clothes once washed, sprayed my bag with a eucalyptus-peppermint concoction, slept on baby powder and lathered myself in eucalyptus oil before going to bed.  Yes, all of this sounds like actions of a crazy person, but the bites ceased and I soon could look forward to some sweet dreams.

During these three weeks of torture and torment I spent endless hours searching ‘bed bugs’ online.  This is a synopsis of my findings:

WHAT ARE BED BUGS?

Bed bugs are the devil incarnate, in my opinion at least.  But more specifically they are blood sucking parasites (and yes, that’s the scientific terminology I am going to use for them).  Bed bugs are named after their favourite place in our homes… the bed.  But they can, and are quite happy to roam on couches, chairs, base boards, pretty much anywhere they can ‘hide’ or find a host (I have a friend who has not taken a seat on Toronto public transit solely to avoid bed bugs… they are everywhere!).  They usually live for 10 months (and the females will lay up to 200 eggs in her lifetime!!), but can live for longer than a year if they have found a conducive home for breeding, they can also live for several months without a host.  And contrary to popular belief, beg bugs are visible and range between 1.2 mm (egg) to over 5 mm (adult) in length.  They are also sneaky little buggers and have an anticoagulant in their saliva so you can’t even feel them when they decide to make a buffet out of you.

HOW TO KNOW THAT YOU HAVE BED BUGS

Bed bugs sole purpose is to feed.  So the first clue that you have bed bugs will most likely be from a new collection of bites on you (which are constant and all consuming).  Once you’ve been bitten you want to look for other signs to confirm that it is a bed bug(s) that is having you for brunch.  Bed bugs do bite in a specific fashion, usually you’ll find three bites together or even a line of bites, this is your first sign that it isn’t a flea or mosquito.  Next you’ll want to go bed bug hunting, starting with the bed by lifting up your bed sheet and look for the following (favourite bed bug hiding places are in the seams of your mattress):

– Bed bug fecal matter and stains (image below)

– Blood spots

– Actual bed bugs or eggs – bed bugs are attracted to heat so if you hold something warm (like a lighter – but be careful!) over the mattress they might come out to greet you.

Travel Note: Apparently, it can take up to two weeks for the bed bug bites to surface (depending on the person), so if you’re on the road you may not have gotten attacked in the location where you first notice the bites.

Bed bug fecal matter/stains (image courtesy of Bed Bug Talk)

HOW TO PREVENT BED BUGS ON THE ROAD?

The more careful you are in selecting where you sleep the less likely you’ll encounter these critters, here are some things that you can do to help prevent meeting an unwanted bed partner.  Keep in mind that more expensive and/or cleaner hostels or hotels does not guarantee a bed bug free environment.

1. When booking accommodation check the Bed Bug Registry, Trip Advisor, Hostel Bookers or another accommodation review board and look for any complaints about bed bugs.

2. Pack your clothes in sealed plastic bags.  This way if you do get attacked your dirty and clean clothes will be separate, any clothes worn while attacked will now be contained and you’ll be in a better position to manage the bugs.

3. Before officially ‘checking in’ ask to see the room and check the mattress for any signs of bed bugs, and keep your luggage in the bathroom or away from any furniture until you’ve assessed the room.

HOW TO HANDLE BED BUGS ON THE ROAD?

Okay, so you’re travelling, you’re on an epic adventure, you’re staying at a new hostel, guest-house or hotel every couple of days, you wake up and your arms are covered in bug bites.  Here’s your plan of attack:

1. Look to find other clues that confirm it’s bed bugs.  Notify the guesthouse that you woke up with bites and whether or not you found any further clues.

2. Take all your clothes and wash them in high heat and dry them in high heat for at least 45 minutes.

3. If you don’t already have your clothes in sealable plastic bags, go out and buy the big ziplock bags to pack your clothes once they’ve come out of the dryer.

4. If you can, borrow a vacuum and vacuum the inside and outside of your luggage, but make sure when you’re done vacuuming to ask housekeeping to change the bag to contain any further infestation.

5. Bed bugs don’t like eucalyptus, lavender, or mint.  If you’re like me and travel with a couple essential oils, ask your guesthouse for a spare spray bottle and fill it with 1/2 a cup of water and 10 – 12 drops of the essential oil and spray your back pack, luggage, or any item that can’t be wiped clean or washed.

6. Change guesthouses.

Special note: Food grade diatomaceous earth (a soft, siliceous rock that easily crumbles into a fine powder) is known to strip their shells and eventually causing them to die.  I don’t know any more about this product or where to get it, so please do your own research to make sure this is a product that you feel comfortable using (I included a link below).  Of course, as a traveller we’re not caring around diatomaceous earth, however, baby (or talcum) powder, which many travellers have to prevent chafing has been known to do a bit of damage to the pest, and at minimum makes it difficult for them to walk (in particular up bed frames).

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU RETURN HOME?

The last thing you want to do is bring a stowaway bed bug home.  When you return, be sure to keep you luggage isolated.  If you can, keep it out on the porch, balcony or shed until you can empty the contents, clean them, thoroughly inspect your luggage, and then clean your luggage.

Bed bugs can’t survive in high heat or frigid temperatures, so if you’re travelling and return mid-summer in a hot climate or cold winter you can either leave your luggage in the trunk of your car on a hot sunny day so that it will be exposed to heat of 45 C (115 F) for at least two hours, or place it in an uninsulated winter shed that can dip below -5 C (23 F) for at least five days.

BED BUG RESOURCES

If you’ve been attacked or want to ensure you don’t get attacked, your best weapon is information.  The more you know about the bed bug, the better equipped you’ll be if you ever find yourself face to face with one.  These are some links that helped me.

Bed Bug Foundation

Bed Bug Talk

Bed Bugger

Bed Bugs and Travel: Don’t Let Them Get to You

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Bed Bugs FAQ

Earth Works Health: Diatomaceous Earth for Bed Bugs

Lonely Planet: How to Deal with Bed Bugs

WikiHow: Get Rid of Bed Bugs Organically

 

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One thought on “bed bugs… a backpackers nightmare

  1. budget jan says:

    So now I am feeling itchy. Fingers Crossed we don’t get bitten because they sound awful. I have read of other people as well that once bitten cannot get rid of them, and being on the road it would be difficult to contain. A yuk subject but someone has to do it! Now other people can be prewarned and know what to look for.

    What do hostel/hotel owners think when you ask to look at the room and then start removing sheets to inspect the bed? Have you tried this and had any reactions to doing so?

    Like

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