By Michele Bennett Decoteau
While many families are vigilant about lice prevention, they may be sleeping -- literally -- on another pest that can be just as easily caught and bring even more inconvenience, frustration, and expense to a household.
Bed bug reports are on the rise again nationwide, yet the pests are a classic example of an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure. With a little forethought and careful examination, families can prevent bringing home any unwanted "souvenirs."
Bed bugs are small, flat, oval, brownish insects about the size of an apple pit and feed exclusively on blood -- human is their favorite.
"No one likes bed bugs," says Jim Dill, Pest Management Specialist, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, "but they don't transmit diseases. Their bites don't hurt, but you can get an allergic reaction to the bites, and anyone visiting you can take them home. And an infant lying on a mattress is a captive food source to them."
Bed bugs could be found in any hotel room -- from the fanciest of five stars to a roadside bargain motel -- so plan ahead to check the room carefully before you settle in. When you walk into a hotel room, put your bags in the bathroom. Bed bugs like to hang around places where people or animals sleep, but they can travel, so set down your bags at least 5 feet away from the bed. The bathroom is usually an ideal location.
"Don't put your luggage on the carpet. Put it on a chair or in the bathroom," adds Yolanda Villamil, manager of Alpha Travel in Worcester.
Get out a flashlight. Pull the bed covers down and look at the area near the headboard of the bed. Then pull up the fitted sheet and look carefully around the lip of the mattress. Bed bugs like to sleep in snug little spots during the day. They don't make nests, but they do like to hang out together.
No bugs yet? Pull out the nightstand drawers. A bed isn't the only place bed bugs can hide. They are sneaky suckers, so flip the drawer over and check underneath and in any books left in the drawer. Still nothing? Check the fabric straps of the luggage rack and any joints they could hide in, as well as any chairs near the bed.
Be sure to lift the mattress pad, if there is one, and look at the mattress itself for blood speckles.
It should take about 10 minutes to check the room for unwanted guests (watch Dill walk you through a hotel room check). If you haven't seen any bugs (or blood on the mattress), relax! If you see any little bugs, their nymphs (non-adult, less-mobile stages), or frass (bug poop), take your luggage from the safety of the bathroom and ask for another room.
"Usually the bed bug infestation is spotty," Dill says. "Ask for a room far away. Bed bugs do travel on their own. They can use water pipes or even just crawl under the door and go to the next room. They have a rather rigorous mating, so it is usually the female who disperses. And she can be pregnant."
Adults can live many months without a blood meal, especially if it is cooler. In an ideal environment with plenty of food and warmth, bed bugs can produce three generations per year.
There is an online registry where people can report bed bug infestations, but be wary, Dill advises.
"There are registries for different states, but they only tell you that at one time a hotel had a room with bed bugs, but it may not still be accurate," he adds. "And they are [guests] reporting. Someone could report bed bugs at a hotel when they just had a bad experience."
When you return home, vacuum out your luggage just in case and wash any clothes you brought immediately. Ten minutes of prevention and some quick cleaning once home will take a little time, but it could also save you a lot of money.
"Getting bed bugs in your home is very costly," Villamil notes.
A house can be treated for bed bugs, and professional help is required. "They are difficult to get rid of and impossible to get rid of on your own," Dill explains. "Treatment is heat and insecticide. If you can bring the heat up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, you can kill all stages of the bed bug. But this is not recommended for people to do on their own. You never know what might melt or need to be removed before treating. The heat is followed by insecticide."
Some pest companies employ bed-bug-sniffing dogs to do the job. "The dogs can sniff out live bed bugs, but any time an insecticide is used to treat the bed bugs, the dogs can't be used," Dill says.
Bed bugs were not the issue a decade ago that they are today, he explains.
"About eight years ago, we started to see more concerning reports of bed bugs that were resistant to insecticides," he notes. "At the same time, global travel is much easier. You can get across the globe today and come back home tomorrow. This increased bed bug reports. At the same time, we used to treat cracks and crevices with insecticide for cockroaches and that killed bed bugs, too. That was changed to a more-effective bait system that kills more roaches, but not bed bugs."